The power of predictability in our homes

Thanks to my littlest grandson, age 3, and his wonderful passion for everything dinosaurs, I have recently been fascinated with how human evolution has occurred.

We are staying at his place at the moment and at bedtime, we have been reading lots of books that feature dinosaurs. On reflection, I am now aware that my grandson who has been read to at bedtime since soon after birth, knows that reading is one of the predictable steps that happen every night, before bed. This means that his brain has created a neural pathway that helps him predict what’s coming next.

When a neural pathway is really strong, it can be called a habit, and positive habits are fabulous things in our homes.

I remember reading somewhere in the last few years that the two most challenging experiences for children of any age are complete chaos and absolute rigidity.

I had thought that having a rigid (i.e. inflexible) routine would not be as challenging for children as chaos, however, rigidity requires complete control over children. We know from the science of child development that that kind of control would compromise the most important thing for healthy development, human connectedness.

When we practise safe attachment, both parents and children can better navigate the unpredictable nature of life with little humans. We all have different needs and different wants at different times and we need to respond to these in a way that causes no harm.

Scanning for survival

As I was wandering around in dinosaur land, I thought of the early civilisations of humans and how their brains and bodies were wired to survive and to continue the species. To ensure this happened, the threat centre in the brain, the amygdala, was constantly scanning the environment in every waking moment to ensure no threat could compromise the fundamental driver of humans, which is the continuation of the species. Men and women in these traditional kinship communities had very different roles to ensure the survival of species and even though these have evolved over time, the key drivers of social communities, is the continuation of the human race.

Over millions of years, humans have evolved to live in very different communities and men and women’s roles in those communities have changed too. However, the fundamental threats still exist and our amygdala is still scanning the environment to ensure that the human race survives.

Ultimately, unless survival is ensured, the capacity for humans to be clever, happy and calm takes a backseat!

Thanks to the incredible research of psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, we now know that from birth our babies and toddlers’ brains are constantly scanning their environment. They are also scanning the humans in their environment so that they can learn to predict how to do this crazy dance called life. There is very strong research on the impact of trauma in childhood, and how that compromises the future growth and development of that child. It can make the brain’s ability to predict and adapt less efficient.

How can we help the brain build healthy, predictability pathways?

Given that the most important thing to a child in a social species is healthy secure, attachment, that is the best place to start.

Every parent is biologically wired to prevent their child from experiencing anything potentially harmful and, yet, children who have a safe base and are given opportunities to stretch and grow, in their own time, in their own way, get better at risk assessment, resilience and courage. I wrote about this concept of ‘safetyism’ recently, as mentioned by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Anxious Generation. Allowing children authentic autonomy and choice, especially in their play opportunities, supports them to gradually stretch and to embed the predictable potential that lies within them.

Let’s be honest one of the most frustrating things about raising toddlers who are biologically wired to demand autonomy, is that they challenge so many of the predictable habits their loving parents have given them since birth.

It seems that out of nowhere they will resist the afternoon nap, getting in the car seat, eating broccoli or they suddenly develop the need to climb everywhere! Let me reassure you, all of this is developmentally wonderful despite being frustrating because they are developing new competencies and capacities, while discarding old ones! This is a sign that your toddler is growing into being more independent and more capable, and that’s a good thing.

Holding boundaries – because they absolutely have to get in the car seat – can cause so much parental frustration and angst. So when faced with this dilemma, one of the things that needs to happen is to create a new predictable pathway to get them in their seat.

For some toddlers, you might race them to the car seat to see if you can beat them. For others, they may choose a special toy to take with them or they may be given a small container of their favourite food once they’re safely buckled in.

Essentially, incentivising them can be helpful, however we need to be mindful that it doesn’t become a reward. Your toddlers will see through that pretty quickly and demand it even when they can get in the car seat by themself.

Helpful habits of predictability

Creating helpful habits of predictability from a young age is a good thing. The best news is that modelling on the safest grown-ups in their lives is by far the most effective way to create healthy habits. If you remove your shoes in a certain place every time you come into your home and you wait for children to do it too, it can become a habit.

The next thing that can be really helpful is preparing children for what may be going to happen in a new situation or if they are meeting new people. Our orchid children are often our most anxious kids because they are hypersensitive to unpredictability.

If you’re heading to a social event, it can be really helpful to let them know what it will be like, roughly how long you will be there and who they may see when they are there.

Thankfully our dandelion children seem to be more resilient and adaptable all the way through life, adjusting to change relatively easily.

Even our older kids need support in building predictability. That is why there are orientation days for students heading from early childhood right through to university.

The fear of not knowing where the toilets are, just in case, can cause many children unnecessary stress and anxiety so it’s a good idea to make sure they do know things like that or encourage them to ask.

Family rituals are another really wonderful way of building healthy predictability for children. Having dinner at a similar time, (remember some flexibility is acceptable as it avoids rigidity) in a similar place often with kids sitting in similar spots, can give the brain a break from scanning for possible threats. Bedtime rituals, movie nights and special cooking events like pancakes on Sunday are all fabulous ways of building predictability and a sense of security and safety in children’s lives.

Sadly, children who have unpredictable homes with chaotic or dysfunctional patterns of behaviour especially from the grown-ups, will learn that their world is unsafe. They may struggle to feel safe in our schools and they also can struggle to regulate. This is why relational safety in our schools needs to be a much bigger priority because it can calm down the overactive amygdala and bring some rest to heightened nervous systems.

Unexpected change of any kind can trigger anxiety in all of us because that is exactly what the amygdala is meant to be doing.

We can stay calm when the world turns up predictably because we know what to expect.

I recently spent a wonderful lunch with the very likeable journalist and TV presenter Melissa Doyle and she shared something her dad told her when she was little that is pertinent to this blog. He urged her to “control the controllables”. In other words, focus on the things that you can control rather than the things you cannot control and, through the lens of neuroscience, that makes perfect sense.

Appeasing the amygdala

Creating effective bedtime routines and habits are good for everyone in the home. When our children need to crawl into our beds because they feel unsafe, rather than see this as attention-seeking behaviour or bad behaviour, we can see they are coming to us because they feel safe, if we view it through the lens of the amygdala.

They are responding to a message from their brain, exactly as we are all biologically wired to do.

Sometimes this fear response can happen when the nervous system has become overloaded maybe due to the end-of-term exhaustion, friendship dramas, changes to educators or teachers, assessment overload or even a growth spurt, especially for our boys. When the nervous system becomes depleted, or as Dr Feldman Barrett explains, when the body budget is low, it is perceived as a threat and we know that we automatically respond to significant threat in one of four ways.

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Freeze
  4. Fawn

As parents, our main job is to help our kids identify what may be driving the underlying depletion of the nervous system. Often it is an unmet need and that can be tricky to figure out with kids of any age. When we can work with our children to identify what is causing their amygdala to activate, we can then help them to create a new, safer predictable way of managing the threat.

If your child is struggling because there has been a change in their life like a new teacher, chat with them about how it can take time to develop a healthy sense of safety with someone new.

Talking about change, especially transitions, from as early as you can, can help prepare your child for other big transitions like going to high school, or taking up a new extracurricular activity or moving house.

When we explain things through the lens of how our amygdala works, and that its job is to help us feel safe and be safe, it can help kids understand that it takes time for something to become more predictable.

The amygdala in the tween/teen years

As our kids go through adolescence, their body changes, their brain changes, their hormones change – and change triggers stress so it’s natural for teens to have a heightened stress response.

Preparing your teens for the impact of these changes with good information can decrease the need for the amygdala to panic.

Explore with them some of the things that can happen on the bridge to adulthood. Maybe even share some of your stories of how you struggled at times. Then, acknowledge that they may have times they’re going to experience heightened levels of stress and that is not a bad thing – it is a sign that their brain is doing its job. Then you can explore some ideas about what might help to ease that stress and make them feel better. You can help them make new habits.

Building predictability, especially during times of expected and unexpected change, helps everyone cope better.

A brain can take time to adjust to a new sense of normal, and some changes, particularly the loss of a loved one, a home or a traumatic experience, can take a very long time for us to adjust to. However, we are wired to survive and only when we feel safe, can we experience the gifts of joy and delight. So please be kind to your amygdala and remember the power of predictability in your daily life.


Image credit: © by AndrewLozovyi /