Renee, mother of 5-year-old Jonathan, called me with her most recent challenge. Here’s how she described it:

Jonathan can get very resistant to going somewhere new. The other day I told him that we were going to visit my friend Ellen and her family after breakfast. We’d never been to her house before — she has a swimming pool, and a dog, and a son about Jonathan’s age, so I was pretty sure he’d have a great time there. But he started saying that he did not want to go, and I could not convince him he’d have a great time, even though I really tried everything. It went like this:

Jonathan: I’m NOT going! You can’t make me!

Me: Jonathan, you’ll have a great time there! You can go swimming. You love swimming!

Jonathan: No I don’t! I HATE swimming.

Me: What do you mean? Don’t you remember when we went to Evan’s house, and I couldn’t get you OUT of the pool when it was time to leave? You had such a great time!

Jonathan: No! I hated it! I’m not going! You can’t make me!

Me: You did not hate it! And besides, if you don’t want to go in the pool, I’m sure there’s lots more you can do. She has a dog — you love playing with dogs — and I’m sure they have lots of toys, too. You’ll have a great time.

Jonathan: No, I won’t. I’m not going.

Me: I hear that you do not want to go, but I already promised her we’d go over. Besides, I want to visit my friend! You don’t get to decide this one!

Jonathan (screaming louder): No, YOU don’t get to decide.

I tried everything, but he just kept screaming that he didn’t want to go, and I could not convince him. It ended up being a miserable morning!

New Situations and Strong Feelings

Sometimes kids can take a while to warm up to a new idea — anything from a new food, a new shirt, or in this case, a new home to visit. It can be baffling to a parent. When I asked Renee why Jonathan didn’t want to go, she truly did not know.

Renee’s goal was not only to get Jonathan to cooperate with the day’s plan to visit her friend, but generally to become more flexible. I suggested that the next time something like this came up, she put into words how Jonathan was feeling. While she didn’t know exactly WHY he didn’t want to visit Ellen’s house, it was very clear he felt strongly — he did not want to go! The strategy would be for her to reflect this back to him, so he knows she understands, and he starts to learn to identify and articulate his own feelings: “Wow, you feel very strongly that you do NOT want to visit a new house today, even if it does have a swimming pool!” I warned Renee that she may have to listen to a lot of complaints and upset feelings, and she may have to say some variation of this many times before he would be ready to move on (“You are NOT in the mood to visit a new house!” “You do NOT want to go swimming in a new pool today!” “Even though they’ll have a lot of new toys, you would much rather stay home today!”). It would be especially challenging to say this with genuine feeling.

Of course, we wondered when Renee would get a chance to try this strategy out. It didn’t take long! Here’s what she reported when we spoke again:

Sunday night I told Jonathan that he’d be starting a new camp in the morning. He started screaming and crying. Instead of trying to convince him that it would be great — which is what I usually would have done — I just kept reflecting his feelings for what seemed like forever.

Me: You don’t like that idea. You don’t want to start a new camp.

Jonathan: No! I’m not going!

Me: You wish you could go back to Adventure Camp! You loved that camp!

(That was his old camp, which he really loved, but it was over.)

Jonathan: Yeah!

Me: I bet you wish you could go to Adventure Camp forever and ever! They should never have closed that camp!

Jonathan: Yeah! They should have it for the whole summer!

At this point he was still crying, and he climbed into my lap.

Me: And then you would never have to go to a new camp. You would always know what to expect, and you would always have a great time, and you would always have Tom for a counselor!

Jonathan: And Andy would be there, too!

Me: It can feel scary going to a new camp. You don’t know who’s going to be there. You don’t know what to expect.

Jonathan (crying, nods his head): Mm-hmm!

We went on like this for so long I almost wanted to say, “OK, now you’re done.” But I just let him keep crying in my arms. And finally he said: “OK, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

I have to admit it was really hard to stick it out the way you suggested! But I’m so glad we did, because the next day, when we got to his new camp, he just ran off with his counselor as soon as we got there! It was amazing! I guess he really did need to have a good cry about his favorite camp ending.

Sometimes we don’t know WHY our child is so resistant to trying something new. In this case it seems that Jonathan needed to mourn the end of a favorite camp, with wonderful counselors, and he couldn’t move on to accepting a new camp until he had had a long cry in the arms of an understanding parent. By putting into words his strong feelings, and holding him and letting him cry until he was done, Renee helped him move on — and saved herself from another miserable morning.

Strategy: Put into words how your child is feeling. Say it like you mean it! Don’t try to talk them out of it, or explain why they shouldn’t feel this way.

Tip: You may be ready for him to move on long before he is able to. If your child is expressing a difficult feeling, or something that’s been pent up for a while, it may take a long time to let it all out. Hang in there!

Julie King is a Parent Educator at Parents Place and “How To Talk” Trainer in the Bay Area. If you are interested in participating in her most popular workshop, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen,” (for parents of children 3 — 10 years), register now for Fall sessions in San Rafael.

Julie offers private consultations in person and by phone, and is also available for Parent Education evenings and workshops for self-organized groups. Contact Julie at 415-939-3553 or [email protected].

©2012 Julie King