How to help children develop the confidence to try new things

Ways to help children develop the confidence to try new things include parents projecting confidence in their children, experts say. (Cavan Images, Getty Images)

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ATLANTA — One might expect children’s capacity for boredom to be matched by an appetite for all things new, if parenting were that easy. Trying new things is hard for many kids, 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 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 a big part of living through 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 of the children experienced loss, whether it was the loss of their normal lives, the livelihood of their family, or their loved ones,” Lebowitz said. “It’s not surprising that we’re seeing kids retreat to places where they’re in control.”

One of my main jobs as a parent is to expose my children to a wide variety of people and experiences. I do so in the hope that they will become more open-minded, picking 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 encouragement to get out and experience the world, and parents and caregivers need help figuring out how to provide that help without making them feel insecure or overexposed. Such a balance requires consideration and intention, which, fortunately, is not impossible to achieve.

Here are some expert-approved tips on how to get your kids to try new things without scaring them.

start with what they know

Take something your kids already like or are good at, and encourage 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 co-author of “Parenting Emotionally Intelligent: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, and Socially Skilled Child”.

“We want our kids to feel confident in their strengths and use them 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 is another place you can play that instrument?”

There’s no need to learn a new instrument, figuratively and metaphorically speaking, just an opportunity to push your child to try something new with a skill or hobby they know.

Routines are your friends

Sometimes something new works better when it’s part of something old. This is a particularly useful tactic with neurodiverse children, as well as others resistant to change, said Karen VanAusdal, senior practice director at the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

“Routines and rituals can be very comforting and helpful,” she said. “I believe in keeping them and then stretching a part (of them) to add something new, while allowing the child the agency and the power to decide if he wants to do it.”

Routines and rituals can be very comforting and helpful. … I believe in keeping them and then stretching a part (of them) to add something new, while allowing the child the agency and the power to decide if he wants to do it.

–Karen VanAusdal, senior internship director at Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Here’s a little example of mine: My kids and I often 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 that they were willing to try foods they had never tried before.

Make a list

Ask your child what new things she wants to try, or have her write a list, VanAusdal said. Help them figure out what worries them when they avoid new things, whether it’s a sleepover at a friend’s house or a new bowl of pasta.

Sometimes the act of identifying and naming fears can help decrease them. It is 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 ask them to do an exercise where they imagine themselves doing something they love to do. And then ask them to think about whether they’ve ever tried it,” she said. “It will help them see how, while there may be a small risk involved (in doing new things), the reward can be huge.”

sympathize 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, she said, and not always intuitive. Some are inclined to tell children that something they are afraid of 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 with acceptance. Acknowledge that something may be scary, distressing, uncomfortable or difficult,” Lebowitz said. His advice: Tell them directly that you know this is scary or difficult for them. Do it well. But don’t stop there.

It’s important to project confidence in your child, Lebowitz added. “He Say he thinks you have the ability to handle those challenges and tolerate the discomfort, worry, or negative feelings” that can come from doing new or scary things.

Communicate acceptance. Acknowledge that something may be frightening, distressing, uncomfortable, or difficult.

–Eli Lebowitz, director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center

Parents and caregivers are like mirrors for children, he said, and “if the reflection parents create is vulnerable, weak or incapable, then that’s how they see themselves.”

Consider if they are doing enough

Parents and caregivers should also reflect on their own, Lebowitz said. Does your kid really need to try tofu, martial arts, or a sleepover at grandma’s house?

Or maybe they’re doing it perfectly, imperfectly, okay?

He said it’s helpful to view this process through the lens of food. Is your diet so restricted that you are harming your health? Or do they eat a mostly balanced diet that you, the parent, wish was more adventurous but didn’t pose a risk to their well-being?

“It really does matter which one it is. If your child is functioning generally, is doing the basics, has a few friends, then encourage him, but don’t get too stressed out about everything he’s not doing,” Lebowitz said. “Sometimes doing that prevents us from concentrating on the things they’re doing.”

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