Helping children develop the confidence to try new things involves parents exuding confidence in their children, experts say. (Cavan Pictures, Getty Images)
Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes
ATLANTA – One might hope that boredom in children would be accompanied by an appetite for something new – if only parenting were that easy. Trying new things is difficult for many children, be it a different food, activity or skill. They like what they know and they know what they like.
The pandemic didn’t 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 dates 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 everything new and unknown came with an added risk of disease.
“When children are anxious, they tend to prefer predictability, familiarity, and repetition, and they dislike uncertainty, unpredictability, and change. Those last three words are a big part of surviving the pandemic,” said Eli Lebowitz, director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders 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 losses, whether it’s the loss of their normal lives, the loss of their family’s livelihood or loved ones,” Lebowitz said. “It’s not surprising that children retreat to places where they are in control.”
One of my main responsibilities as a parent is to expose my children to a variety of people and experiences. I do this in the hope that they will become more open-minded and collect a wide range of colors with which to paint their life story.
Unfortunately we are all a bit rusty. Children need encouragement to get out and experience the world, and parents and caregivers need help figuring out how to provide that help without feeling insecure or overexposed. Such a balance requires thoughtfulness and intention, which fortunately isn’t impossible to achieve.
Here are expert-approved tips on how to get your kids trying new things without freaking them out.
Start with what you know
Take something your kids already like or are good at and urge them to try it in a new setting or in a slightly different way, said Maurice J. Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and a co-author of “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, and Socially Competent Child.”
“We want our kids to be aware of their strengths and use that as a springboard to try something new. What are our children good at? What are you comfortable with? How can we help them get ahead in that?” he said. For example: “If they play a musical instrument, what other place can they play that instrument?”
There is no need to learn a new instrument, figuratively or metaphorically speaking – just an opportunity to get your child trying something new with the skill or hobby they know.
Routines are your friend
Sometimes a new thing works best when it’s part of an old thing. It’s a particularly helpful tactic for neurodiverse children, as well as others who resist change, said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
“Routines and rituals can be very calming and beneficial,” she said. “I believe in keeping them and then stretching a bit (of them) to add something new while giving the child the agency and power to choose if they want to do it.”
Routines and rituals can be very calming and beneficial. … I believe in keeping them and then stretching a chunk (of them) to add something new while allowing the child the agency and power to choose if they want to do it.
–Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
Here’s a little example from me: My sons and I often go out for Korean food on Thursday nights. Recently we tried a new restaurant where the food was a bit different. To my great surprise, they didn’t mind! The idea of eating together at a Korean restaurant felt so safe, exciting and familiar that they were willing to try foods they had never tasted before.
Make a list
Ask your child what new things they’d like to try — or have them make a list, VanAusdal said. Help them identify what worries them about avoiding new things, whether it’s a sleepover at a friend’s house or a new pasta dish.
Sometimes identifying and naming fears can help reduce them. It’s a way to feel responsible for your emotions and to understand the connection between feelings, thoughts and actions.
“As part of that conversation, you can have them do an exercise where they imagine themselves doing something they love to do. And then ask them to think about whether they’ve never tried it,” she said. “It will help them see that while there is a small risk (in doing new things), the reward can be huge.”
Sympathize and encourage
Lebowitz encourages parents and caregivers to practice both 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 tend to tell children that something they’re afraid of isn’t scary, which can drain their feelings. Others tend to comfort them and tell them it’s okay if they don’t want to do anything that scares them, which can validate their fears.
“Communicate acceptance. Acknowledge that something might be scary or distressing or uncomfortable or hard,” Lebowitz said. His advice: tell them straight out that you know this is scary or difficult for them. Make it okay. But don’t stop there.
It’s important to project trust into your child, Lebowitz added. “Say you think you are able to deal with these challenges and to tolerate the discomfort or worry or negative feelings” that can come with new or scary things.
communicate acceptance. Acknowledge that something might be scary or distressing or uncomfortable or hard.
–Eli Lebowitz, director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center
Parents and caregivers are like mirrors to children, he said, and “if the mirror image the parents create is vulnerable, weak or incapable, then that’s how they see themselves.”
Consider whether they are doing enough
Parents and caregivers should also reflect for themselves, Lebowitz said. Does your child absolutely have to try tofu, martial arts or a sleepover at grandma’s?
Or maybe they’re doing it perfectly, imperfectly, OK?
He said it helps to think of this process through the lens of food. Is their diet so restricted that it is detrimental to their health? Or do they eat a broadly balanced diet, which you as a parent would like to have more adventurously, but pose no risk to their well-being.
“It really matters which one it is. Overall, if your child is functioning, they’re doing the basics, they’ve got a few friends, then encourage them, but don’t overemphasize anything they’re not doing,” Lebowitz said. “Sometimes that keeps us from focusing on the things they’re doing.”