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‘My daughter freaks out when there is a sudden change to a plan or routine’

Ask the Expert: Routines are important for most families, and for some children predictable routines are crucial


Our 12-year-old daughter is anxious about any new activity or change to routine. She needs every outing planned to the last detail, including the “what ifs”, which is impossible and leads us to not venturing out for a hill walk, a swim at the local pool or even sometimes avoiding large family events, etc. We always have to prompt her to think of the positives – “. . . you might have a good time, what if . . . you meet a new friend” – but she invariably counters with all the things that will go wrong and all the things she is worried about.

Do you have any advice here? At the moment the solution is to split up and one parent stays at home and the other goes out with her younger brother, which is not great. Also, when we are going out places she sometimes “freaks out” when there is a sudden change to a plan or routine unless she has lots of advance notice, which is not always practical.


Good routines are important for most families and provide a way of managing the day and ensuring all the important things get done. For some children, predictable routines are of crucial importance and give them a sense of control and comfort as they manage the day. As a result, they can experience great distress when routines change without warning or can feel “out of control” when they are engaging in new unpredictable activities. This is particularly common for neurodivergent children who are autistic or have ADHD, or for children who have a tendency to overworry or be anxious.

While of course, it is impossible to navigate through life without dealing with unpredictable changes (and indeed many important family activities can be unpredictable by their very nature, such as hill walking or outdoor adventures), there is a lot you can do to help your daughter cope.


Take time to understand your daughter

The first thing you can do is to try to see the world through your daughter’s eyes. Try to understand what routines mean to her and how they might give her comfort and a sense of control. Rather than dismissing her negative what ifs or worries about new activities encourage her to tell you more about them. What in particular is she worried might happen when out on a nature walk? Be curious about what is going on in her mind when she “freaks out” at unpredictable change. Encourage her to talk in detail about the experience later when she is calmer. What is going on in her mind and her body? Be curious rather than judgmental and take time to understand. Her “freaking out” is a likely sign of distress, rather than a sign of her being deliberately destructive.

Prepare in advance

As you have discovered, it really helps to give your daughter lots of advance warning for changes and to help her prepare in advance for new experiences. Be very patient as you do this. Listen carefully to her “what ifs” and try to answer each one, while also pointing out the benefits and good aspects of the new experience. It might be useful to write out a step-by-step guide for new activities and to highlight options and choices at key points, eg “any time we are tired we can stop for our picnic”, etc. If you can, try to see this preparation and anticipation as a “fun” part of the experience for family events.

Help your daughter manage changes

Unpredictable changes are of course unavoidable and going to happen from time to time. It is useful to anticipate this with your daughter and to plan how she might manage these. Talk through unforeseen scenarios such as “what if the bus is late?” or “what if Mum gets delayed” and discuss what she can do to cope. Be empathic about how distressing these might be and explore what she can do, instead of freaking out. Different things will work for different children so be open to lots of different strategies, such as stepping back and going somewhere quieter if she can, taking a minute to attend to her breathing, putting on her headphones to listen to music or learning to say how she feels to the person she is with etc.

Carefully pick new activities

Recognise that some new activities may be easier for your daughter than others. For example, it might be harder for her to consider a hill walk in a far-away location than say a woodland walk in a more familiar nearby place. Or it might be easier for her to go to a smaller family event than a larger one with lots of strangers. If possible introduce changes gradually and focus on smaller steps that make things easier for your daughter.

Also, it is often a valid solution that you sometimes split up and do separate things as a family, with one parent going out on an adventure her younger brother enjoys and the other doing something separately with your daughter that she enjoys.

  • John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See