Editor’s Note: This story is the fourth in a series looking at ways we can help our children restore, with patience and love, some of what the pandemic has taken away.
One might hope that children’s capacity for boredom would be matched by an appetite for all things new – if only parenting were so easy. Trying new things is difficult for many children, whether 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 was cut off these past few years. There was less exposure to other people’s cooking, limited extracurricular activities and traveling, and fewer playdates with new friends whose homes have different smells, foods and rules, among other missed opportunities. Making matters worse, Covid-19 turned the world into a scarier place, where all things new and unknown came with an additional risk of getting sick.
“When kids are anxious, they tend to prefer predictability, familiarity and repetition, and they don’t like uncertainty, unpredictability and change. Those last three words are a big part of living through 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 kids experienced loss, whether loss of their normal lives, their family’s livelihood or loved ones,” Lebowitz said. “It’s not surprising that we are seeing kids retreat into the places where they do have 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 with the hope that they become more open-minded, collecting a broad spectrum of colors with which they can paint the story of their lives.
Unfortunately, we are all a little rusty. Children need encouragement to get out there 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 balance requires thoughtfulness and intention, which is not, fortunately, impossible to achieve.
Here are expert-approved tips on how to get your kids to try new things without freaking them out.
Start with what they know
Take something your kids already like or are good at, and push them to try it in a new environment or slightly different way, said 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 about 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 advance in that?” he said. For example, “if they play a musical instrument, what is another venue where they 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 the skill or hobby they know.
Routines are your friend
Sometimes a new thing works best when it is part of an old thing. This is a particularly helpful tactic with neurodiverse children as well as others averse to 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 comforting and useful,” she said. “I believe in keeping them and then stretching one piece (of them) to add in something new, while allowing the kid the agency and power to decide if they want to do it.”
Here’s a small example of my own: My sons and I often go out for Korean food on Thursday nights. Recently, we tried a new restaurant where the food was a little different. They, much to my surprise, didn’t mind! The idea of eating at a Korean restaurant together felt so safe, exciting and familiar that they were willing to try foods they had never had before.
Make a list
Ask your child what new things they want to try out – or have them write a list, VanAusdal said. Help them figure out what it is they are worried about when they avoid 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’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 have them do an exercise in which they imagine doing something they love to do. And then ask them to think about if they never tried that,” she said. “It will help them see how while there might be a little risk involved (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 certainty that their child can handle the task. Both are equally important, he said, 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 and tell them that it’s OK if they don’t want to do something 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 directly that you know that this is scary or hard for them. Make it OK. But don’t stop there.
It’s important to project confidence in your child, Lebowitz added. “Say you believe they have the capacity to handle those challenges and tolerate the discomfort or worries or negative feelings” that might come along with doing new or scary things.
Parents and caregivers are like mirrors for children, he said, and “if the reflection the parent creates is vulnerable, weak or incapable, then that is how they see themselves.”
Consider if they are doing enough
Parents and caregivers should also do some reflecting of their own, Lebowitz said. Does your child really need to try tofu, martial arts or a sleepover at grandma’s house?
Or, maybe, are they doing perfectly, imperfectly, OK?
He said it’s helpful to conceive of this process through the lens of food. Is their diet so restricted that they are harming their health? Or do they eat a mostly balanced diet that you, the parent, wishes was more adventurous but poses no risk to their well-being.
“It really matters which one it is. If your kid is functioning overall, they are doing the basics, they have some friends, then be encouraging, but don’t overstress on everything they are not doing,” Lebowitz said. “Sometimes doing that stops us from focusing on the things they are doing.”
Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenthood. Her book on the radical power of parenting and caregiving will be published in 2024.