Is your child afraid to try new things? New is not always easy for kids. Whether it is a new town, school, activity, sport, diet, or food, new means change, and change means the unexpected and uncertain.
For most of us, change induces a bit of anxiety. It leads to a sense of not being in control, and we ALL desire control to feel emotionally safe. For children, this can be magnified. Children have not yet learned the traits of being flexible, adaptable, and trusting of things outside their realm of comfort. Still, there are several things that you can do to build these life long traits in your children as they grow. Let’s get down to it!
When fostering flexibility, routine is not always the way to go.
Early in your parenting journey, you were likely advised to keep routines with your children. While I do not disagree that routines are healthy and minimize stress, balance is the key. It is equally important to introduce your children to occasional spontaneity and new experiences. You will find that they will be far better able to adapt in the long run when life naturally brings change their way.
Periodically, introduce gentle shifts in your routine, allowing your children the opportunity to adapt. For instance, if you are accustomed to serving meals at particular times, change it up once a week. Serve some new foods and let everyone try them even if they were expecting their comfort food favorites. Allow your children to sometimes finish homework at the park picnic table instead of at home at their desks. Take a break from after school routines, and do something unexpected like hit the playground, or head out to get a snack. Plan some weekend fun out of town, or day trips to some place new (even if you think your children won’t like it). Change it up. It is good for everyone!
Similarly, I would encourage you to not stop life from happening. If you have plans to be out for an occasional family gathering, a family movie night, or a football game, allow your children to stay up a little later and sleep in the next day. Allow them to be part of the festivities and head to bed an hour or two later than normal.
In all of this, you instill in them the importance of being able to bend when life changes, new things come, or the unexpected happens.
Adaptability and a love for what is ‘new’ comes from seeing it modeled.
Model the ability to handle change well. Let your children see you enjoy change and embrace new experiences rather than fear them.
It isn’t about winning, success, or even mastery. It is the joy of novelty.
Teach your children that trying a new activity isn’t about being great at it. Likewise, trying a new food isn’t about loving it. Nor is trying a new school about having all the friends one can imagine. New experiences are about novelty, the joys of finding out new things, meeting new people, and learning more about others and ourselves. The winning, the success, and the mastery may be a wonderful part of the journey but not essential to enjoying the experience.
Prepare your children ahead of time.
Spend time talking with your children about what is to come.
If it is a new school, go and tour it ahead of time, meet the teacher, walk out the school day schedule alongside your children, and point out all the positive things along the way. Help your children know who to ask for help. Pack a loving and affirming note in their lunchboxes. Plan something fun after school the first couple of days, like picking up a snack on the way home or stopping at the park to play and decompress.
If it is a new sport, take your children to watch other kids play a few games. Focus on the expectation that he or she will have fun and learn new things rather than focusing on the potential of winning.
If you are introducing a new food, have a ‘one bite rule’. The one bite rule is the rule where you have to try something once before saying you like it or don’t, and before asking for an alternative. When my children were infants, we introduced them to various different foods (not your typical baby foods), and they loved them. As toddlers and even up until now, if I cook a new food, they know the rule is that they try it before asking for a PB and J. They’ve developed a love for different cuisines this way!
If you are moving to a new area, plan for at least three months to prepare your child emotionally and six months to adapt to a new school. Moves in the summertime are easiest, so that families have a chance to explore the new town and find all the fun things to do so children can feel at home. While unpacking can be a stressful process, try to take it easy and make it fun. Order pizza and let the kids enjoy taking time to set up their rooms. If they aren’t interested, let them see you take the process in stride. Take breaks to play with them or order dinner in and talk. Take them to their new school, introduce them to their teachers, and if you have opportunities to arrange play dates or get togethers with other students, snatch those chances up!
Transitional objects never hurt, and we are never too old for them.
Remember when your infant wanted a pacifier to calm down? Or your toddler needed a teddy bear to fall asleep? Or your four year old needed a blanket to take to preschool for naps? Transitional objects are items that make us feel connected to the places where we feel safest or to the people we feel safest with. They make it easier for us to step into new and uncertain situations by giving us a tangible reminder of something soothing and familiar.
Did you know that as adults, we still benefit from transitional objects? For me, they are the photos of my children on my laptop or even the dirty pair of sneakers my child leaves in my car when he goes to summer camp (smelly, but they remind me of him)! Many parents don’t touch their children’s rooms when they leave for college because everything in them evokes nostalgia and eases the transition to the empty nest stage.
So, when your children head into a new situation or phase of life, be creative and help provide transitional objects! It might be your scarf, your shirt, a special item, a teddy bear, or a photo placed into their backpacks. For all of us, these objects soothe and provide the comfort of familiarity when change is overwhelming.
Prepare yourself to respond well if you have a child who is overwhelmed.
You may have a child who loves the new right away or it may take a while. On the flip side, it may seem that she is uncomfortable and time isn’t changing anything. Be open to listening and understanding. It is good to help your children to see the positive, but it is equally important to validate what they are feeling and just listen.
If your child is in a new school, sport, or new town, remember that she has to navigate social situations. She may want to be part of a new group while at the same time trying to feel confident and learn new things. Kids are always trying to figure out who they are in the bigger scheme of their environment. It’s tough. Be supportive, be loving, be understanding, and be patient.
If time passes, and things aren’t getting better, be open to acting on what your child is telling you. All too often, a child will try a new school or new activity, and parents will push the child to “keep on keeping on”, even when the child is giving every indication that the stress is too much. If you’ve done all you can to support your child, including involving others if needed, think about finding alternatives to the new, and make sure she knows that it is OK. We all need our way out of the new when it is overwhelming or simply doesn’t feel right. Let your child’s voice be heard and be flexible in finding an alternative.
Your adaptability, willingness to change, and desire to help your child find new experiences that are positive will go a long way toward earning her trust. You will help her feel comfortable enough to share her feelings and vocalize her own needs. You will also keep her from being fearful the next time something new comes around.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens”-Ecclesiastes 3:1