Editor’s note: This story is the fourth in a series that explores ways to help our children recover from the pandemic with patience and love.
One might expect that children’s capacity for boredom would be matched by their hunger for all things new, if only parenting were so easy. Trying new things is difficult for many children, whether it’s a different food, activity or skill. They like what they know, and they know what they like.
The pandemic 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 fewer playdates with new friends whose homes have different smells, foods, and rules, among other missed opportunities. To make matters worse, Covid-19 turned the world into a scarier place where all new and unknown things came with an added risk of getting sick.
“When children are nervous, they prefer predictability, familiarity and repetition, and dislike uncertainty, unpredictability and change. Those last three words are a big part of surviving the pandemic,” said Eli 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 experienced loss, whether it was loss of their normal life, family livelihood or loved ones,” Lebowitz said. “It’s not surprising to see children retreating to places where they have control.”
One of my main jobs as a parent is to expose my children to a wide variety of people and experiences. I hope to make the idea more open, gathering a wide spectrum of colors to paint the story of their lives.
Unfortunately, we’re all a little rusty. Children need encouragement to go out and experience the world, and parents and caregivers need help figuring out how to provide that support without causing insecurity or overexposure. This balance requires thought and intention, which, fortunately, is not impossible to achieve.
Here are some expert-approved tips for getting your kids to try new things without freaking out.
Take something your kids like or do well, and encourage them to try it in a new environment or in a slightly different way, said Maurice J. Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University and author of “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to.” Raise a self-disciplined, responsible and socially skilled child.”
“We want our children to be confident in their strengths and use that as a springboard to try something new. What are our children good at? What are they comfortable with? How can we help progress in this?”. he said For example, “if they play a musical instrument, what is another place to play that instrument?”
There’s no need to learn a new tool, figuratively and metaphorically speaking, just the opportunity to encourage your child to try something new with a skill or hobby they already know.
Sometimes a new thing works better when it’s part of an old thing. The tactic is especially helpful for children with neurodiversity and others who want to change, said Karen VanAusdal, chief practice officer at the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
“Routines and rituals can be very comfortable and useful,” she said. “I think it’s about keeping them and then stretching a piece (between them) to add something new, while giving the child agency and power to decide what they want to do.”
Here’s a little example of mine: My son and I often go out for Korean food on Thursday nights. We recently tried a new restaurant where the food was a little different. To my surprise, they didn’t mind! The idea of eating together at a Korean restaurant was so safe, exciting and familiar that they were willing to try foods they had never had before.
Ask your child what new things he wants to try, or have him write a list, VanAusdal said. Help them figure out what they’re worried about when they avoid new things, whether it’s a sleepover at a friend’s house or a new plate of pasta.
Sometimes identifying and naming your fears can help reduce them. It’s a way to feel in charge of your emotions and understand the connection between feelings, thoughts and actions.
“As part of this conversation, you can do an exercise where they imagine doing something they like. And then ask them to think if they’ve never tried that,” he said. “It will help them see how even though there may be a little risk (in doing new things), the reward can be huge.”
Lebowitz encourages parents and caregivers to practice recognizing their child’s fears and expressing confidence that their child can handle the task. Both are equally important, he said, and not always intuitive. Some have a tendency to tell children that something they’re afraid of isn’t scary, which can invalidate their emotions. They tend to comfort others and tell them it’s okay if they don’t want to do something that scares them, which can validate their fears.
“Communicate acceptance. Accept that something might be scary or upsetting or uncomfortable or hard,” Lebowitz said. Her advice: Let them know straight up that you know this is scary or hard. Make it okay. But don’t stop there.
It’s important to project confidence to your child, Lebowitz added. “Tell them that you believe they have the ability to face these challenges and endure the discomfort, worry, or negative feelings that may come with doing new or scary things.
Parents and caregivers are like mirrors to children, she said, and “if the reflection the parents create is weak, frail or incapable, that’s how they see themselves.”
Parents and caregivers should also give it some thought, Lebowitz said. Should your child try tofu, martial arts, or grandma’s house?
Or maybe they’re perfect, imperfect, okay?
He said it helps to think of this process from a food perspective. Is their diet so limited that they harm their health? Or they eat a mostly balanced diet that you, the parent, want to be more adventurous with but doesn’t risk their well-being.
“It’s really important what it is. If your child is functioning in general, they’re doing the basics, they have some friends, then encourage them, but don’t stress them out about everything they’re not doing,” Lebowitz said. “Sometimes doing that keeps us from focusing on the things we’re doing.”