We adults are rarely forced to try new things. We’re accustomed to our habits,and seldom have to move out of our comfort zone, unless we so desire.
But children are constantly faced with new experiences. On any given day, a kid might be thinking, “This year’s teachers are way different from last. Multiplication just made sense last week and now we are on to long division?! Oh, and now Brussel sprouts might be good with bacon sprinkled on them … ”
While it is important for kids to try new things, they’re having more new experiences than we adults may realize simply because they are children — and they don’t have as many years on the planet!
Many children jump into new activities without a second thought, while others seem frozen in space, rigid with worry about it. It isn’t clear why some young people don’t want to try something new. They aren’t afraid, but perhaps unmotivated.
If your child seems reluctant to try a new activity, put your detective hat on to figure out what has stalled him — and the solutions may fall into place. Ask these questions or take these actions.
1: What activities does he currently take part in? If he already has interests he is passionate about, pushing something else may not be necessary or helpful. Warnings to not overbook your child were popular in parenting circles a few years ago, and it’s certainly true kids need plenty of unstructured down time. But they also need hobbies that extend beyond video games. It is a balance.
2: Take a long look at what he will and won’t do. Maybe he doesn’t want to tackle a new activity at school, but on family vacations he’s first in line for whitewater rafting or drama camp over the summer. Youth like this are probably not scared or anxious. Instead, maybe they aren’t liking the current choices or don’t want to add more to their schedule. Explore different options with them. Be firm but also fair. Let them take the lead in developing an activity schedule along with your input.
3: Dig a little deeper if your child freezes in different situations, from trying a new food to checking out a different city park. Encourage him to share thoughts about what is scaring him; validate his feelings but offer encouragement. If he is still stuck, consider a few sessions with a family therapist who could use play therapy or other kid-friendly techniques to provide support and build confidence.
It’s vital for kids to receive honest praise for the things they do well. Yet you also don’t want kids to be defined by the things they do poorly. A child who picks up the family folklore “we are clumsy and don’t do well in team sports” has just shut the door on many potentially great experiences.
Finding a Balance
Discover your kid’s unique strengths, but keep the door open. Many kids understand their personalities and talents at an early age, which can be wonderful. A child who believes she’s talented at art is more likely to stick with it. However, this can also have the opposite effect. A kid who learns from others that her hesitance to chat up everyone in kindergarten means she’s shy may internalize this label and be less likely to join the debate team, even though deep down she thinks it might be cool.
The best solution for parents? Pursue an easygoing but generally positive outlook on getting kids into activities, as in, "Hey, if you're interested, you should try it!" Keep the pressure low and remind your child he doesn’t have to be the best in every activity. This liberating notion is sorely lacking in our competitive world.
Childhood (and life) are about new experiences. Kids need to discover what they excel at and what they may not be so great at but still enjoy. Consider how many adults find knitting relaxing but have no plans to advance beyond scarves or booties! These opportunities need to exist for kids, too.
Parents could also consider modeling these strategies. Believe it or not, Mom and Dad, you often appear to your children as if you’ve got it all figured out: You’re the primary example of "grown up" to them. You go to your job, take care of the house, check their homework, tuck them into bed.
Imagine if your kids see you signing up for a pottery class and sharing thoughts of not knowing how you’ll do or wondering what the other participants will be like, and if you'll make friends. This could be the magic bullet to ease fears and provide inspiration for you son or daughter to tackle their own new experiences.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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