Trying new things is hard for children and parents. However, if we prevent our children from experiencing new things, we also prevent them from experiencing things they love. Parents also miss out on the opportunity to see their children grow and experience the wonder of the unknown. So how do we foster joy in new things?
The joy we all experienced was necessary for the emotional well-being of our family.
Preparing Our Children
Under the age of 5, children will often struggle with new things. Their brains are still in a developmental stage where new information is challenging to process. It makes sense that they will be afraid when they meet new people or try new activities. The key is to prepare them as much as possible before they encounter new situations. For example:
- Use a favorite doll or stuffed animal to model sports or activities.
- Tell your kids about new family members they will meet using pictures.
- Explain what it means for them to have a sitter and then have you return.
The more you model and show them what they expect, the more it lowers their fear, shows them that they can trust you (and themselves!), and increases their ability to feel joy.
In order to be able to experience joy in new circumstances, children need to be able to identify and experience a full range of emotions. The same is true for adults who may not have been taught this as children. In order to do this, model naming feelings for your children. A feelings wheel is a helpful tool for identifying emotions. Then help children identify how that emotion feels in their body. For example, feeling nervous might be in their stomach, but excitement might be there too.
Once they have identified an emotion without judgment, help them decide what to do with that emotion. Positive emotions like joy and love need to be moved through and expressed just as much as negative emotions like sadness and fear. For smaller children, feeling emotions might include drawing, punching a pillow, or letting a stuffed animal model what they’re feeling. For older children, it might mean talking about how they are feeling, acting, or journaling.
Processing All Emotions
…if we constantly tell ourselves not to be angry, we also numb our ability to feel joy.
Why does this matter? The part of our brain that tells us how to feel emotions. We have to move through our emotions in order to tell our brain that it is safe to continue to feel that emotion. If we try to prevent ourselves from feeling a certain way, we numb that emotion. The problem is that when we numb one emotion, we also numb our ability to feel the opposite. Opposite emotions also appear on the feelings wheel. For example, if we constantly tell ourselves not to be angry, we also numb our ability to feel joy. Allowing our children to experience anger and fear in new situations also allows them to feel joy in other circumstances.
Resiliency Creates Joy
When children learn to express their emotions, it leads to resilience. Often, emotional regulation skills are the coping skills we need in difficult times. It may feel natural to protect our children from new experiences when they’re afraid. However, working through those fears helps them practice coping skills and discover that they actually love new things. There’s also a direct correlation between building resilience and lowering anxiety in children. Kids who are allowed to be afraid, who work through challenges, and who have supportive caregivers become less anxious, more joyful adults.
My partner and I were very nervous to leave our child with a sitter for the first time, so we did everything we could to prepare our family for the change. We were nervous at first, but we okayed the feelings for ourselves and our daughter. In the end, my partner and I had an amazing time connecting with friends we hadn’t seen in ages. When we came home, our daughter was happy to see us and had clearly had a great time. She made a new friend and engaged in new types of creative play. We would have missed out on so much if we had let the fear of trying a sitter get in the way. The joy we all experienced was necessary for the emotional well-being of our family.
Elise Champanhet is a Mental Health Therapist seeing individuals seeking physical, emotional, and mental wellness at Optimum Joy Clinical Counseling in the Greater Chicago Area.