Ready or Not?
Dear Dr. T.,
My daughter is a first-grader and is doing well. I find, though, that she doesn’t like to go beyond her comfort zone (and her teacher mentioned it to me, too). When she’s being taught a new skill or concept that she finds challenging, she sort of shuts down and/or is very reluctant to do it. For example, she’s learning how to read and is reading very nicely, b”H. When she reads aloud, though, she likes to stick to those books that she’s very comfortable with, even though she’s really ready to proceed to the next level. How can I teach her to go beyond her comfort zone?
Before developing any strategies to help your daughter along, we need to know what is going on with her. Is she shy, anxious, or merely slow to warm up? Understanding what is going on with your daughter is half the solution. Think of it this way: When dealing with a medical problem, like a headache, you ask yourself, “Is my child over-tired, stressed, or sick?” Once you figure out the cause of the problem, you are ready to proceed with an early bedtime, Tylenol, or a visit to the doctor. Similarly, with emotional or behavioral states, our response hinges on the nature of the situation.
Before I begin, I want to compliment you on your question. Though obviously this issue is in the “minor league” category, the gold-star parent supports her child her child so he can be all he can be. Though your daughter does not seem to be in any pain here, you want her to do the best she can for herself.
So, is your daughter by nature reticent, or has she learned to be this way? Is it nature or nurture? Or, more than likely, a bit of both?
People’s behavior is the result of internal factors (temperament) and external (environmental) ones. We are all born with a particular temperament: qualities like persistence, intensity, and distractibility are present at birth. So are qualities like overall mood (relaxed or anxious) and adaptability (slow or quick-to-warm-up to people, places, and activities).
However, it is entirely possible that this behavior is not natural to her but, rather, learned. The way our environment reacts to us teaches us how to be. A warm enthusiastic response reinforces behavior: our smiles and nods tell our child “nice job” and encourages repetition. But a critical attitude – in word, look, or body language – discourages behavior and may eliminate it totally.
Think of your typical ten-year-old who speaks her mind and has definite ideas about house rules, school policies, etc. In a home where independent thought is supported, this child will continue to express her mind. However, in a home where such ideas are considered chutzpah, many a child will remain silent and keep her ideas to herself.
So, let’s go back to your daughter. Was she always kind of fearful – of new people, toys, or environments? Or, possibly, is she slow to warm up to new experiences, but once she gets used to them, she’s fine? A child with this profile would need some time and experience of success before she can move out of her comfort zone.
Or maybe this is newer behavior for your daughter. You remember that as an infant and baby she was relaxed and eager for new experiences. Her hesitancy now seems out of character for her, and you are curious what it’s all about. You want to help her become more comfortable and self-confident and wonder at the shift in her behavior.
Coming to some kind of understanding of your daughter’s behavior will help determine how you will address it. Though there is no one-size-fits-all, here are some ideas.
- Know and believe that development is a process, not a contest. If your daughter is comfortable with where she is at, consider letting her progress unfold at its own pace.
- Go slow. Rushing adds pressure. Once you remove the pressure of time, much of the tension dissipates. The idea is to master the skill – not to be first or on some schedule.
- Use encouragement to motivate and reinforce. Pair the desired activity with something pleasant so that there is a positive association. Keep compliments, prizes, and treats at the ready for immediate reinforcement.
- Role-play or practice any new/uncomfortable situations with your daughter – preferably before she gets stuck in her way. So, you might try reading aloud the book on the next level and then asking her if she wants to read it back to you.
- Monitor your responses to your daughter’s reading. Are you showing impatience, anxiety, or applying pressure in any way, shape, or form? The added pressure of your response makes it harder for your daughter to get comfortable and move on.
- Do check with the school and verify that there is no undue pressure there as well. Some teachers, in their effort to motivate students, set up a competitive system that is paralyzing to some of them.
- Look into the peer group in school. Is there any teasing, snickering, or bullying when students make mistakes? Is your daughter being picked on by one or more girls?
Five-year-old Suri loves birthday parties – until she gets there. She clings to her mom and won’t stay on her own, but she also does not want to leave with Mom. Mom feels frustrated: She’s embarrassed that Suri is such a “baby” and resents the wasted effort of getting Suri there only to schlep her home.
On Suri’s morah’s advice, she decides to prepare Suri for her environment (party) and do some role-playing. She begins by talking to Suri, who is adamant that she does want to go to her friend’s party next Sunday. Early in the week, Suri chooses her party outfit and puts it on. She and her mom then enact a birthday party using menchies and play dishes. They practice “going” to the party and Mom leaving. They eat some nosh and play a few games. Hopefully after a few trial experiences, Suri can be eased into going to friends’ parties on her own.
Wanting to see our children develop and grow is a parent’s hope and dream. How to get them there is our challenge and life work.
The Book Nook: Worry by Edward Hallowell, M.D. provides the reader with hope and help for a common condition. This reassuring book is the perfect antidote to fear, nervousness, and feelings of anxiety.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.