Listening to what the child has to say about their interests is a good place to start.
Published: August 31, 2017
By: Courtesy of UAB
In today’s world, children are very active, being pushed and pulled into various extracurricular activities. Parents sometimes struggle with listening to their children to determine their likes, dislikes, wants and needs, while helping navigate their children through a well-rounded childhood.
“Children, like adults, have different personalities; some are energetic and like to be on the go, and others are more comfortable at home,” says Heather Austin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. “Sometimes parents make executive decisions about what activities are best, but listening to what the child has to say about their interests is a great step in determining the best activities for them.”
Choosing the right activity
Parents who make “executive decisions” on what activities a child participates in might make the child miserable and shy away from full participation in the activity, Austin says. Parents should take a look at the child’s overall interests, while considering the benefits of each activity. For example, swimming lessons are beneficial, but pushing the child to be on the swim team might not be the best choice for every child.
Austin suggests talking to your child to find out what interests them, then explore those interests by signing up for camps or classes to see if there is a true interest and how the child measures up to others who are participating.
“Sometimes kids are self-aware and see the opportunities for growth – especially older kids,” Austin adds. “Children are often open to suggestions for growth, especially if it might mean something practical for them, such as going to a specific theater camp that may help them be more comfortable speaking in front of people.”
Parents spend a lot of money on activities, so evaluate the value of your child’s involvement. “Knowing that money is being spent on activities a child enjoys could prevent future frustrating conversations as parents are trying to push their children out the door to get to the activity,” Austin says.
Increased moodiness, irritability, worrying, nervous habits, clinginess, fatigue and lack of enjoyment in activities may be a sign of over-involvement or need for downtime. “There is definitely a difference between overscheduled and opportunities for enrichment,” Austin says. “Downtime is essential for children. I think often we as parents and professionals forget this.”
Weeks that go by without a break or without free time often leave families frazzled and stressed out. “Lots of children, especially teens, can identify when they are stressed, but know the end is in sight,” Austin says. “On the other hand, parents should be able to identify whether a child is not enjoying something and is struggling to finish. It is up to the parent to then help encourage the child to the end, identify changes that will help the child feel more supported, and reduce mental or physical exhaustion.”
Parents and kids often get caught up in the end goal, like a recital or playoffs, with little recognition of how it affects stress levels. Parents may feel conflicted in allowing a child to quit an activity versus pushing the child to finish an activity they were initially enthusiastic about. The choice to quit or to push forward depends on the specific child, the situation, and the impact it has on them physically or mentally.
Continual pushing does not provide a good example for children in learning how to set boundaries. A parent who has difficulties knowing when to take a break and continues to push their child into activities without listening may deliver the message that a break is not acceptable and that continuing until finished, even at the expense of our bodies and our brains, is always the best choice.
However, children should not quit an activity every time they are feeling pressure or stress. Setting clear boundaries initially and promoting self-care along the way can help a parent and child evaluate moving forward or quitting in a healthy way.
Getting out of the comfort zone
Parents should urge their children to try new activities, but be able to recognize the difference between refusal to do something and being worried about doing something. “Many of us feel the symptoms of worry creep in with new experiences,” Austin says. “But, if your otherwise sweet, easygoing child is telling you ‘no,’ it might be good to listen from the standpoint of being supportive and understanding.”
Knowing why a child does not want to do something may help a parent guide them through the situation. “Some children are hesitant to participate or are anxious, no matter what the activity may be, and frequently I will encourage parents to give the child a deadline and encourage exploration into activities of interest,” Austin explains. “Sometimes this will motivate and encourage children to be an active part of the decision process.”
For example, if a child has to attend a summer camp due to a parent’s work schedule, but the child continues to tell the parent he or she doesn’t want to go, give the child a deadline to pick a camp that would be fun and interesting for them. If the child doesn’t choose, the parent will choose.
Parents should consider what might be keeping a child away from an activity by checking the social scene and what might be influencing them, either positively or negatively. Ask open-ended questions to learn more and respond without shock or the natural response to go talk to the adult leader or the other child’s parents. The child will probably provide more information regarding the severity of an issue, and the parent can help the child problem solve.
Parents should talk to their children about how they were brave and took an opportunity out of their comfort zone that really helped them succeed or improve themselves.