A few years ago my friend Kristen Chase, one half of the duo behind Cool Mom Picks, gave me a word that I’ve since made part of my vocabulary:
A dreader is someone who looks toward the future with reluctance. This is not about wishing Monday morning would never come or feeling the heaviness of a to-do list as if it were an actual physical weight. This is about not wanting to get dressed for a party, even though you like your friends. It’s getting in bed with your partner and thinking, “I just want to go to sleep,” even though you like sex. That’s the adult version.
One of my children is a dreader. (I’m going to use the pronoun “they”, because “their” friends’ parents read this.)
When we ask this child if they want to go see a play, ride their bike, go out to dinner, go to Disneyland, the answer is usually “No.”
I’m serious about Disneyland, and we have gone without this child several times because they didn’t want to go and our other child did.
Now, this is a joyful child who has fun on every adventure we’ve done as a family, which are numerous and include canyoneering, ziplining, long bike rides, and even restaurants that have surprised and delighted them.
It has become clearer and clearer to me that the reason for dreading the experience is the unknown.
Sometimes we return from an event and they share what they thought it was going to be like and it’s a simple misunderstanding, based on having only been on the planet for a handful of years.
“I thought we’d be sitting outside on the ground,” they said, after we were seated for a concert in an auditorium.
Here are a few strategies for dealing with kids who are dreaders:
YouTube. Unlike Pinterest, which makes my kids think their birthday party is going to include a rainbow-colored buffet of candy jars, YouTube is a pretty good way to peek into what something will actually be like. Major attractions like theme parks, live performances, and hotels usually have tours on YouTube. Even general experiences like weddings, visiting grandma in the hospital, and a holiday tree lighting can be found there.
Take a dry run. Rehearsing the experience before it arrives can decrease anxiety. Go to the new day care place and wave hello without going in. Put on the whole uniform/gymnastics outfit/ring-bearer suit “just to see if it fits”, especially when there are no time constraints. In her book, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, Parenting expert Betsy Braun Brown says, “The less uncertainty, the better.” She writes, “Explain everything that will happen, step by step.”
We will pack a bag with your towel and bathing suit and drive to the gym which is a big building. The pool will be inside the building. When we get there, we will find a big bathroom, called a changing room, and put your bathing suit on. I will help you change and the other children will be getting changed with their parents. Then we’ll go meet your teacher. Her name is Josie. She will play games with you in the water. I will be sitting near the pool watching you have fun. I will hold your towel so that when you are done in the pool, I can wrap you up to get warm.
Bribes. Call them rewards, call them bribes, I don’t care, just please remind me to use this system of motivation because I always forget! I was having significant anxiety of my own because my child, who loves soccer, said that they would not being going to practice (for a season I had already paid for). I knew that if I could just get this kid to the field, they would see friends and play well. They were dreading the start of the soccer season and doing a lot of whining about it, which was upping my anxiety, and so I introduced a bribe. This incentive was for an 8-year old, so it was a long-term system: Go to practice without complaining for five weeks, and you can have X. For a younger child, I’d go with a quicker turnaround.
Some kids are cool with a lollipop for getting a haircut. When my child was five, I had to commit to spending $10 on a stuffed animal at Target.
Choose your timing. If there’s one thing my husband and I have been very consistent about, it’s sharing limited information with our children. It has surprised me that this is our style, as I am generally pro-communication. But we see no reason to extend their anxiety longer than it has to be, so I would usually say, “This morning we have to stop at the doctor’s office before we go to school,” knowing that every moment leading up to the appointment is torture for my dreader. Telling them the day before will just ruin everyone’s night.
There is a fine line between telling them exactly what to expect and not emphasizing more to worry about. It’s a line I’ve probably screwed up more than I realize.
Every time I get a “No”, I still wonder, am I pitching this wrong? What seems horrible about this Very Fun Activity that my children are privileged enough to access? I’m working hard to remember to cover some basic details, like does it or does it not involve sitting on the ground outside.
Do you have a child who dreads everything, from Disneyland to the dentist?