The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


October 11, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Choices can be tough for kids

JOPLIN, Mo. — Checking the mail is usually cause for celebration around here. The kids never know what might be stashed among the bills and cable TV advertisements. A pen-pal letter; a wildlife magazine; a package of stickers from an out-of-town aunt.

But this time of year, there’s one item that’s more treasured than anything else: the Halloween costume catalog.

Never do the kids gather so reverently around a single object as they do when looking at decorations and costumes for the beloved season. They huddle and whisper, taking hours of each day to decide what they want to be for Halloween.

It’s no matter that we may never purchase anything from the catalog, visual inspiration is savored. The catalogs were devoured this year as usual so that before the end of September, my girls knew what they wanted to be for Halloween.

My preschooler, in particular, had big ideas. So big, in fact, that she had chosen six different perfect costumes. She wanted to be a butterfly, a cow, a green fairy, a baker, a renaissance princess and a crayon. She wanted all of these things so badly that we had trouble narrowing it down to a final choice. And by trouble, I mean a conniption fit.

Her distress was so profound that she reverted to blubbering screams of frustration before imprisoning herself under the bed, because, apparently, dust bunnies are preferable to decisions.

At 4 years old, she’s mostly past unreasonable meltdowns. But this one, I realized, I should have seen coming. As with most children, an abundance of options has a tendency to cause extreme anxiety.

Little ones are becoming more confident and outspoken during toddler and preschool years, but their ability to make smooth decisions is still developing. When confronted with a wealth of possibilities, many kids will shut down rather than face the possibility of choosing badly. Even when Ñ or perhaps especially when Ñ their options are all awesome, it can be hard for them to decide on the winner.

It happens when choosing something to wear from a closet full of clothing. Or when picking a single breakfast food from several delicious options. Or when it’s time to choose a movie for a rainy afternoon.

It’s a simple fix, when approached from the front end: Whittle down their options until their choices become manageable. Instead of sending her into her closet to choose an outfit for the day, set aside three choices for her to decide between. Offer two breakfast options instead of opening up the full menu. When there’s less chance for making the wrong decision, kids will have less anxiety during the process.

But once the possibilities have already become overwhelming, it’s harder to pave a straight path forward. Then, it’s just up to us to help them navigate what’s an already fraught situation.

Once they’ve calmed down, lay out the merits of each choice. Be sure to remind them that whatever isn’t chosen this time can be enjoyed next time.

Helping our kids get through a difficult choice is about more than pulling them out of a bad mood. It’s about letting them feel the satisfactory effects of a decision well made, and understanding that each decision isn’t life or death. It’s about teaching them to focus on important details and leave the rest by the wayside.

And whether that’s the difference between a bowl of Cheerios and a piece of toast, or a cow costume and a butterfly costume, we’ll all rest better once the decision has been made.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.

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