This is a guest post by Carolyn Meyer-Wartels, LCSW-R, Psychotherapist and Parent Counselor, www.meyerwartels.com
How do parents know when their children are ready to take on a new challenge? Should we encourage them to try out for the soccer team even though they are nervous? Should we support their decision to go to sleep away camp even though at times they seem wary about going? These are not easy questions to answer. Instinctively we know that if we force a child to do something before he or she is ready, it could backfire, causing that child to regress, possibly make him or her more frightened, and ultimately interfere with the child feeling that true sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming an obstacle. In the same vein, if we always communicate to a child, “don’t worry, if you are nervous you shouldn’t do it”, that child might feel more insecure about their abilities sensing parental doubt, and learning that it is easier to give up when things are hard rather than move forward with fortitude.
There are no “one size fits all” answers for this complicated question, but here are some guidelines that can help you consider how to answer this question with your child.
1. Know your child and learn about what is developmentally age appropriate for him. It is very different when a five year-old says he wants to do something one day and then changes his mind the next, than when an eight year-old does the same thing. An eight year-old has a clearer cognitive understanding of consequences; he knew what was entailed when the expensive week of ice hockey camp was agreed to. In the same vein, some five year-olds are fine being gone all day for camp while others have not yet developed the emotional or physical stamina for this experience. A quick search of the internet on your child’s age can give an overview of what is developmentally appropriate for each age group.
2. Listen to your child’s concerns. Do not talk your child out of his or her feelings. Every child has them, and as we know, feelings are not always rational nor make sense. So, even if your kid is the most talented actress, she may still fear failure. A child’s anxiety will often quiet down once she or he feels understood. Often, if we don’t communicate a sense of understanding for their experience, they tend to escalate their angst, in hopes that they will be heard. Try saying something like, “it sounds to me like you are feeling really nervous about these try outs.” This simple validation can go a long way towards helping your child feel understood.
3. Try to help bridge the gap between where your child is now and his or her goal. If your child is not ready to take on a full challenge, she or he may be willing to do a compromised version of that bigger step. For example, if your child is petrified of taking a bus for the first time to camp, perhaps for the first day or two you drive to camp with him or her and meet the bus to help build confidence in this new venture. Or if a child is nervous about saying something to someone, encourage him to tell you what he would want to say and write it down for him. Even if you wind up reading the words, they are still your child’s words rather than yours, and you have given your child the strength and space to articulate his thoughts.
4. Lend your child your confidence. Let your child look in your eyes and see a positive image of him or herself. This unconditional love and support can go along way in communicating confidence in your child’s abilities. Note that there is often more strength in a quiet and subtle support than a loud continuous insisting that your child is full of many talents. Be one step ahead of your child, not ten.
When we encourage our children to try something new, it’s like working with a well-known dance partner. A dance partnership has to have give and take; you can push your partner, but if you push too hard or too far, you lose the dance. At the same time, you don’t want to be pushed around by your partner. Encouraging your child is engaging in a complicated dance of that give and take.
Carolyn will be offering workshops on, “How to get your children emotionally ready for camp”. If you are interested, go to http://www.socialsklz.com/camp_sklz.htm
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