My child freaks out over new experiences. Why?
What “freaking out” looks like is different for every child, but the behaviors fall into two categories: passive resistance and aggressive resistance. Aggressive resistance includes behaviors such as yelling, hitting, and stomping, like a tantrum. Although the behaviors may not seem as destructive or severe, passive resistance is also very difficult to respond to. Passive resistance includes refusal to go somewhere or participate in an activity or task, avoiding communication, and self-isolation. You might be thinking that even some adults exhibit these behaviors. In fact, there are business studies everywhere about how to help adult employees embrace change, so you can imagine how much harder it could be for children who have underdeveloped social and emotional skills.
It’s important to first understand a child’s development and how it relates to their ability to cope with new situations. A great scientific article explains that the frontal lobe, which isn’t fully developed until around age 25, is involved in problem solving, memory, language, judgment, impulse control, and social behavior. It is biologically difficult for most children to adequately label and express their emotions. Likewise, older children and teenagers have a greater understanding of appropriate social behavior and may have developed more coping mechanisms to replace some of the aggressive resistance, but they still struggle with controlling the impulse to lash out, don’t see all the consequence of their actions, and see wants as needs that should be met immediately. As the article points out, freaking out is “not only normal, but reasonable” based on a child’s brain development.
But don’t get discouraged and think that you’ll have to wait until your child is 25 to see improvement in their behavior. The good news is that as a parent you can help your child prepare for changes of all kinds. Escalated responses are a natural consequence of brain development, but there are other causes that contribute to meltdowns:
Fear of the unknown
One of the most common and well known causes of freaking out when introduced to a new situation. When a child doesn’t know what to expect, they can experience great anxiety, and the anticipation is often more uncomfortable than the actual event.
Feelings of incompetence
A child may believe they don’t have the skills or knowledge necessary to do well in the new situation. Because of this they resist the change by having a strong emotional reaction in an effort to stop possible embarrassment or failure.
Not knowing why
We may think we are being very clear about an upcoming situation, but through a child’s underdeveloped language and comprehension skills, they may not fully understand what is going to change or why it’s going change. They may also believe that the benefits or rewards gained through the new experience are not equal to the effort it takes to adjust to the new situation.
Change of routine
Establishing routines is common advice given to parents to help children feel secure and feel in control. It’s understandable that changing what they are used to doing could produce anxiety and fear, leading to a meltdown.
Although you can’t take away all fears and as a parent, you can help prepare your child for the new experience by explaining the events ahead of time and what will be expected of them. Make your children aware that something unexpected may come up and then create a plan of how to react appropriately. Most importantly, role-play different scenarios often before the new experience. Role-play is the best way to set your child up for success. Fear reduces when they feel prepared and have practiced the appropriate behavior many times.
Even with preparation your child may still have a negative reaction. Prepare yourself to respond appropriately as well, no matter your child’s reaction.
Anxiety is a normal and natural part of life.
However, if your child is not able to function in daily tasks, has suddenly stopped participating in activities that were once enjoyable, has physical pain with no medical explanation, and/or experiences frequent panic attacks, seek help from a therapist or psychologist. Children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Autism also have a higher tendency to react negatively to new situations. If your child struggles in some of these areas, much can be done to help them gain the skills they need to succeed. Seek extra help, if necessary.