“How much/how far do you push your child out of their comfort zone?”

Have you ever found yourself asking this about your child? Do you wonder about the “right” response? Do you feel anxious when your want for your child differs from her want for herself?

This “comfort zone” question was recently posted by a mom in a facebook group to which I belong and I think it deserves real consideration, because there’s more going on below this simple query.

What is a comfort zone?

Borrowing from Alasdair White’s paper on human performance, one’s comfort zone is understood as a “behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition.” Wikipedia’s definition is only marginally different: “a psychological state in which a person feels familiar, at ease, in control, and experiences low anxiety.” In my mind, the idea of “comfort zone” is directly tied to beliefs, in that we feel calm when we think where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing is “safe.” In other words, we take in the scene around us (or imagine what it will be like), and then make up a story about whether or not that situation is one in which we think we’ll be at ease.

Comfort zones and children

Depending on their age and stage, our children have their own ways of finding their comfort zones. For infants, comfort comes when her needs are readily and dependably attended to. Young, well-attached babies can become stressed when they’re away from their caregivers. When beloved parent is out of sight for a three-month old, the parent has effectively “disappeared” because that baby’s mind hasn’t yet developed the understanding to know that “invisibility” doesn’t mean non-existence. For a toddler who has learned that mom returns after leaving, discomfort may arise when little boy is in new settings, with new people, or his routine isn’t predictable. Times of separation anxiety in early childhood are normal and there are many ways to lovingly navigate these times if that’s what’s happening in your family.

For older children, as with adults, the mind takes a more active role in creating feelings of comfort and discomfort. An example can be seen when a child who “loves” preschool stops wanting to go or complains during the morning’s getting ready ritual. My daughter had such an experience. Each school morning (and sometimes the night before), she would complain about being “too tired” or not liking “to have things to do in the morning.” In this case, her “discomfort” came from the fact that she was feeling uneasy with the behavior of one of her classmates. So, though the issue was real — her classmate behaved in ways that our daughter didn’t like — her mind also embellished the story — this boy “always” acted this way, “all the other kids” like to play scary stuff like he did, “no one” wants to play with me during these times. For this situation, empathy for our daughter’s experience, asking the teacher to help our daughter talk to her classmate, and some role playing games at home enabled our daughter to regain her “comfort” with preschool.

Get underneath the comfort zone

Rather than making a blanket statement like “push your children to get outside their comfort zone,” or “don’t push them to do things that they express resistance about,” I think the best route (which we likely won’t always take) is to dig deeper — with your children and with yourself.

  • Uncover the actual issue. Find out what’s really going on for your son when he says he doesn’t want to go to the park. When your daughter is hesitant to go to Sunday school, see what’s fueling her resistance. Is there an aspect of the situation that’s leading to your child’s anticipated discomfort?
  • Support them in getting their needs met. Once you know the problem, talk with your child about what she’s wanting (don’t just assume you know). With my daughter, for instance, part of what she wanted was a way to head off the classmate’s undesirable behavior before it happened. She also wanted some actual assistance in approaching him since her past attempts to communicate her wishes to him had gone mostly unheard.
  • Unhook your own agenda. In the example from facebook that I mentioned at the start of this post, the mom indicated that part of the issue was that her spouse wanted their son to “get out more” and to be less of a stay-at-home kid.  Without knowing it, dad’s want may have felt more like a demand or expectation to their son (or to the mom). This itself can fuel resistance (when we think we’re being pushed many of us instinctively push back). And it can also lead to more anxiety when our children think they are being judged for behaving as they are.
  • Ignore the wider world. The internet (a.k.a. our culture) is “anti” comfort-zone. By this I mean that googling “comfort zone quotes” brings up quotes and images about “good things” existing beyond our comfort zones and boring, commonplace things being within comfort zones. One quote even admonished that “life begins and ends at your comfort zone.” This collective consciousness makes it easy to ignore our inner voice for the “authority” of someone else. By tuning into your child you instill in them an appreciation of their inner wisdom and a healthy skepticism of other’s answers.
  • Don’t confuse comfort zones. As parents  we have our own comfort zones and also our own childhood experiences with moving in and out of comfort and familiarity. If we’re uncomfortable meeting new people we might unconsciously push our child to be extroverted so they won’t have to experience the social anxiety we feel. Conversely we might project our own discomfort onto our children and thus refrain from doing anything that might “pressure” our child to step into new experiences. Our child’s journey in life is different and separate from our own. When your child is navigating their own comfort zone, do whatever you need to handle any issues you have so that you can address their issues in isolation from your own.

Comfort and discomfort are both ok

Our children will be uncomfortable at times in life. Whether it’s a real barrier or an imagined one, as parents we have the opportunity to help our children find their own balance between comfort and “risk.” By digging deeper under the stated problem or resistance, we can discover what lies at the heart of our child’s discomfort.We can then foster in them the ability to determine their own needs and develop effective strategies to meet them. Finally, in putting aside our own agendas or personal comfort zones, we remove any additional burden from weighing them down. Each time we support them in experimenting with their comfort zones, we nurture in them the ability to listen inwardly, reflect consciously, and choose intentionally how they will step out into the world in a way that fits for them. This is an incredible, invaluable, and life-long gift.