So you can help your children to try new things
(CNN) — One would expect children’s capacity for boredom to be matched by an appetite for everything new, if only parenting were that easy. Trying new things is hard for many kids, whether it’s food, a different activity, or a different skill. They like what they know and they know what they like.
The pandemic certainly did not help.
Access to novelty and the unknown has been cut off in recent years. There was less exposure to other people’s cooking, limited extracurricular activities and travel, and reduced play dates with new friends whose homes have different smells, foods and rules, among other missed opportunities. To make matters worse, covid-19 made the world a scarier place, where all things new and unknown came with an added risk of getting sick.
“When kids are anxious, they tend to prefer predictability, familiarity, and repetition, and dislike uncertainty, unpredictability, and change. Those last three words are an important part of living in the pandemic,” Eli said. Lebowitz, director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center and author of “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: A Scientifically Proven Program for Parents”.
“All children have suffered loss, whether it be to their normal life, to their family’s livelihood, or to their loved ones,” Lebowitz said. “It’s not surprising that we see children isolating themselves in places where they do have control.”
One of my main tasks as a mother is to expose my children to a wide variety of people and experiences. I do it with the hope that they will become more open people, that they pick up a wide spectrum of colors with which they can paint the story of their lives.
Unfortunately, we are all a bit rusty. Children need to be encouraged to get out and experience the world, and parents and caregivers need help knowing how to provide that help without making them feel insecure or overexposed. That balance requires thought and intention, something that, fortunately, is not impossible to achieve.
Here are some expert-approved tips on how to get your kids to try new things without fear.
Start with something familiar
Pick something your kids already like or are good at and push them to try it in a new setting or in a slightly different way, says Maurice J. Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University and co-author of “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child“.
“We want our kids to feel confident in their strengths and use that as a springboard to try something new. What are our kids good at? What are they comfortable with? How can we help them move forward with that?” he said. For example, “If you play a musical instrument, where else can you play that instrument?”
There is no need to learn a new instrument, figuratively and metaphorically, it is just an opportunity to push your child to try something new with the skill or hobby that they know.
Routines are your friends
Sometimes a new thing works best when it’s part of an old thing. This is an especially useful tactic with neurodiverse children, as well as others who are averse to change, says Karen VanAusdal, senior director of Practice at the Chicago-based organization Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
“Routines and rituals can be very comforting and helpful,” he said. “I think you have to keep them and then stretch a part [de ellas] to add something new, while allowing the child the will and the power to decide if he wants to do it.
Here’s a little example of my own: My kids and I usually go out for Korean food on Thursday nights. We recently tried a new restaurant where the food was a bit different. To my surprise, they didn’t care. The idea of eating together at a Korean restaurant felt so safe, exciting, and familiar to them that they were willing to try foods they had never tried before.
make a list
Ask your child what new things they want to try, or ask them to write a list, says VanAusdal. Help him figure out what’s bothering you when he avoids new things, whether it’s a sleepover at a friend’s house or a new pasta dish.
Sometimes the act of identifying and naming fears can help diminish them. It is a way of feeling in charge of your emotions and understanding the connection between feelings, thoughts and actions.
“As part of this conversation, you can ask them to do an exercise where they imagine themselves doing something they like to do. And then ask them to think about if they had never tried it,” she explains. “It will help them see how, although there may be a small risk [al hacer cosas nuevas]the payoff can be huge.”
empathize and encourage
Lebowitz encourages parents and caregivers to practice both acknowledging their child’s fears and expressing confidence that their child can handle the task. Both are equally important, he says, and not always intuitive. Some are inclined to tell children that something they fear is not scary, which can invalidate their emotions. Others are inclined to comfort them and tell them it’s okay if they don’t want to do something that scares them, which may validate their fears.
“Communicate acceptance. Acknowledge that something may be scary, distressing, uncomfortable, or difficult,” Lebowitz says. His advice: Tell them directly that you know this is scary or difficult for them. Make it alright. But don’t stop there.
It’s important to project confidence in your child, Lebowitz added. “Tell him that you think he has the ability to handle those challenges and tolerate the discomfort, worries, or negative feelings” that can come from doing new or scary things.
Parents and caregivers are like mirrors for children, he said, and “if the reflection parents create is vulnerable, weak or incapable, that’s how they see themselves.”
Consider if they are doing enough
Parents and caregivers should also reflect on their own, says Lebowitz. Does your child really need to try tofu, martial arts, or a sleepover at grandma’s? Or, perhaps, is he doing it perfectly, imperfectly, well?
Lebowits says it’s helpful to view this process through the lens of food. Is your diet so restricted that it is harming your health? Or, do they eat a mostly balanced diet that you, as a parent, wish was more adventurous, but that poses no risk to their well-being?
“It really matters which one. If your child is generally functioning, does the basics, has a few friends, then encourage him, but don’t get too stressed about everything he doesn’t do,” Lebowitz says. “Sometimes doing that prevents us from focusing on the things that they are doing.”
— Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenthood. Her book on the radical power of parenting and caregiving is due out in 2024.