Making New Experiences Go Smoothly

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The little boy had covered his ears and started crying as the crowd milled around him at the zoo. His parents were very concerned as they thought their son would love seeing all of the animals that he had read about and seen on TV.

No matter what the parents tried, the little boy was just too overwhelmed by all the noise and commotion at the zoo. The family left early and headed back home. His parent were puzzled how something that seemed like such a good idea had gone so wrong.

The little boy’s reaction to the zoo is similar to ones that other children have when they confront new experiences and situations. Most people are creatures of habit and thrive in routine. This is particularly true with children as routine provides some structure and certainty at a time when so much is changing for them, both mentally and physically.

The boy and his parents would have had a much better time at the zoo if a few strategies were used prior to going. These strategies work for any new setting or experience that a child might have coming up.

The first strategy is to let children know when an event will occur. Young children often get very excited about new activities and it can be difficult for them to know when something will happen. Parents can help them by putting up a calendar and having a countdown until the day of the big event.

A second strategy that can help prevent children from becoming overwhelmed by a new setting is to talk with the child about past experiences they have had and how those are similar to the new setting. For example, the parents of the little boy could have explained that being at the zoo is like going to the fall carnival where there were lots of people and lines.

This strategy can be rolled into another one as the discussion can turn to the rules and expectations that go along with the new setting. Just like at the carnival, the little boy needs to make sure to hold his parent’s hand so he does not get lost. The discussion of the rules prior to going to the new setting will provide the child some structure and comfort in knowing what is expected of him.

Another strategy is to let children help out with the planning of the event. If a child is going to the zoo, let him get a map of the zoo and plan what exhibits the family is going to visit. This gives the child a feeling of some control over what is happening.

When children finally get to the new setting, parents should praise them when they are behaving appropriately. It can be easy for parents to overlook when children are behaving well in a new setting but it is important for them to let the children know they are doing what is expected. This helps children recognize that they are behaving appropriately and that they will now know in the future how to behave when they experience the setting again.

New experiences and setting are an exciting part of growing up for children. It helps them learn about the world and grow as a person. With a little advanced planning, parents can make these new experiences manageable for their children and ensure everyone has a good time.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Faith and Family in September 2015.

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