Ministry of Education, Guyana

Helping Kids Get Out of Their Comfort Zone

Change is part of life — it’s something we all have to learn to handle. But the huge shifts that have taken place in children’s worlds due to the COVID-19 pandemic are off the charts.

Managing so much change has absorbed all of kids’ energy and has predictably led to some degree of regression for many children. Some have moved backwards in using the potty, previously independent sleepers have started up with bedtime battles, and many children are melting down more easily, having a much harder time managing seemingly minor challenges. Kids have only so much bandwidth, just like many of us adults, who are also not functioning at full capacity during these stressful times.

But another experience I’ve seen emerging as the effects of pandemic life persist is an increase in inflexibility: children developing very rigid ideas and rituals that are increasing stress for kids and families. Here are some recent examples that may sound familiar:

Jayden only wants his dad to put him to bed now. He screams and protests when his mom is on duty.
Angelica has a complete meltdown when she sees that her nana has parked in a different space than usual when picking her up from preschool. She plants herself in the middle of the sidewalk and announces that she won’t get into the car unless her nana moves it to the space where Angelica expected it to be.
Marco used to love playing outdoors. But as the months of lockdown have worn on, Marco has begun to resist going outside. It is a fight to get him to go on a walk or to the playground. He tells his dads that “outside is bad.” He likes “inside” and playing with his blocks.
Developing fixed ideas about how things should be is a way kids make a world that feels out of control more manageable and safe. They seek sameness. It’s a coping mechanism. They want to stay in their comfort zone — to stick with what they are used to and expect.

The problem is that this lack of flexibility can make life more challenging for kids (and their parents!). In our complex world, the ability to be flexible is one of the most critical skills you can instill in your child. It is an essential ingredient for adapting to the countless events in life that can’t be predicted or controlled. Life throws a lot of curveballs and you want your child to be able to manage when things don’t happen exactly the way she expects or wants it to be.

To become more flexible, kids need to experience that they can, in fact, handle whatever it is they are resisting or fearful of: that Jayden can adapt to not having daddy always be the person who puts him to bed; that Angelica sees she can survive the car being in a different space than expected; that Marco can feel safe and even enjoy outdoor play again.

Here’s how to help your child be more flexible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1 Start by tuning in to and validating your child's emotions and perspective.
Feelings are never the problem. It's what kids do with their feelings that can become problematic. If you don’t start where your child is at, he doesn’t have an opportunity to look at and reconsider his perspective. Further, when you minimize or try to talk kids out of their feelings, they don’t go away; they tend to get bigger. That’s when kids start to make extreme proclamations to get their point across. “I hate going to the playground!”

Instead of: “What’s the big deal if the car is in a different spot?” Try: “I know it feels uncomfortable to see our car in a different space than you expected.”

Instead of: “It’s totally safe outside. You don’t have to worry. You used to love riding on your scooter and playing with your friends?” Try: “I know right now you feel more comfortable staying inside. I understand why you might think going outside is unsafe since you keep hearing that we have to stay home to stay healthy.”

2 Explain the plan, calmly and lovingly.
"Mommy and Daddy take turns doing bedtime because we both want that special time with you. It’s a mommy night tonight. I am going to read now. I can’t make you listen — that is your choice. But I would love a page-turner when you’re ready.”

“I know you’re not happy about it, but I am not going to move the car. You have two great choices: You can get into the car seat on your own or I can be a helper and lift you into the car. Which will it be?”

“Outside time is a have-to in our family, not a choice. It’s important for your body to have time in the fresh air. You can trust that we will only do things that keep us all safe. Once we’re outside you can choose what you want to do.” (Keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do something like get on a scooter or explore the playground equipment. Once outdoors, if you avoid trying to coax him to do a specific activity, and instead give him space, he is more likely to jump into action.)

3 As calmly as you can, move forward with the plan.
Jayden’s mom ignores his continued protests and keeps reading. Once Jayden sees that Mom and Dad are sticking to the plan — Mom is not leaving and Dad is not coming to the rescue (no small feat for him!) — Jayden starts to snuggle up and turn the pages.

Angelica kicks and screams as Nana buckles her into the car seat. She ignores Angelica’s protests but doesn’t ignore Angelica. She just starts talking about the fun things they might do at home to show Angelica that she is not angry or frustrated, she is just helping Angelica to move on and see that she can survive the car not being where she expected.

Marco’s dads create a daily schedule that they go over every morning at breakfast and are sure to point out what times during the day will be outside time. They brainstorm all the things Marco might do: ride his bike or scooter, do sidewalk chalk, play on the playground. They remind Marco that outside time is not a choice. They will be going outdoors even if he protests. Daddies are in charge of keeping everyone healthy and that includes time outdoors each day. When Marco resists, they calmly tell him that they will be helpers and carry him to go outside. Once they are outdoors, and Marco sees that his protests aren’t resulting in getting to go back inside, he starts to play.

The idea is to show your child that you understand his discomfort and, at the same time, you have confidence in his ability to cope with the unexpected or unwanted situation and you are going to help him do just that. This is what builds adaptability and resilience, especially in these unprecedented times.


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