I’ll never forget my first job. I started working at a very small restaurant, about 20 tables, with only one other waitress. The first day on the job I was handed an apron, a pad of paper, and a pen; and told to get to work. I was given no guidance on how to wait tables. The restaurant became immediately busy, and I just started taking orders. Miraculously, I got the drinks out to the right tables; but by the time the food orders were up, I had no idea where to go with the orders. I started walking up to my tables and asking; “Did you order the shrimp basket?” “Please tell me that you ordered the shrimp basket!” “Somebody from this table must have ordered the shrimp basket!!!” As you can imagine, my stress increased as the restaurant got busier and I still had no idea where to bring the food! I failed at my job that day, and was feeing completely incompetent as a waitress; especially when my boss told me how disappointed he was in me!
Developing competence is critical for wanting to reenter situations we have encountered in the past. If that day had gone differently, and my boss had guided me through the process of waiting tables, I would have felt competent as a waitress and returned with excitement to work the next day. Instead, I was stressed and anxious and really did not want to go back! Fortunately, I was resilient and returned to work despite my instinct never to go back. The second day went much better, as the night was slower and another waitress demonstrated some essential concepts to simplifying the process.
So how do you know your child is feeling competent? Coping mechanisms appear differently in every child; but once you know what to look for, you can begin to understand when your child is feeling stressed and know how to respond appropriately. Here are several common coping mechanisms to look for:
- Running off
- Uncontrollable giggles or laughing
- Talking with no relevance to the situation
- Telling the same story, saying the same phrase, or asking the same question
- Attempts to control
- Acting bored
- Refusal to participate
- Adding variations to the activity
- Obsessive behavior
If you notice one or more of these things occurring while participating in an activity with your child, s/he is most likely not feeling competent. Here are a few things you can do to build competence within activities.
- Simplify the activity
- Slow down
- Evaluate the number of distractions in the environment
- Talk less
- Develop clear roles for your child
- Lower expectations
- Shorten the length of the activity
- Offer more support
- Move in closer
If you are unsure of what may have caused the activity to fail, tape yourself and evaluate these things. You’ll be amazed by what you learn about yourself. Let’s look back at my first day as a waitress: If my boss had implemented some of the strategies listed above, my first day would have been a completely different experience! If I had been given only two tables to wait on, the activity would have been simplified and the pace would have been much slower. This would have also given my boss the opportunity to demonstrate how to take an order, which would have offered me more support. His expectations would have been lower for me, and I would have understood my roles much better. We both would have felt better about how the night went!
Building competence in your child can be a lot of work and a frustrating process; but with consistent guidance and personal resilience, the efforts pay off. Once your child is feeling competent in entering new situations, you will find your interactions together becoming easier and easier. Your child will also begin to show more willingness to try new things and persevere for a longer time when things become challenging. An upcoming article will discuss gradually adding variations and elaborations into activities to make them increasingly more complicated; therefore helping your child think more about his/her role and increasing his/her competence in more difficult settings.