Understanding Kids’ Comfort, Growth, and Blackout Zones

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“I DID IT!”

Many of my favorite moments at camp are when I get to witness a previously fearful and hesitant camper in the moments just after they’ve tried something new. Their confidence and joy are at a high as they tell the story of how scared they were, how they tried anyway, and how much fun it was!

The refrain is often the same: “I was so scared of heights and didn’t think I could do it, but everyone encouraged me, then I tried, and now I LOVE IT!”

Last summer, when I interviewed kids about camp, many of them talked about overcoming fears, getting out of their comfort zone, and trying new things:

But it’s not easy for some kids to overcome their fears and try something new. There are some kids who take a few summers at camp before they attempt certain things: waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, and the zipline come to mind as some of our top fear-inducing activities.

Last summer, I spent a few days with our ten- to twelve-year-old campers at our watersports outpost camp. One boy told me — multiple times — about how he was NOT going to try any of the watersports — kneeboarding, wakeboarding, or waterskiing. He said his goal was to “feel satisfied,” and riding the “RAD” (a tube-type thing that requires little skill) was going to accomplish that. (We talk about setting goals at camp, so he had decided that “feeling satisfied” was his goal.)

In his voice, and in the number of times he told me this same information, I heard him trying to convince himself that choosing not to try any new, more challenging watersports was okay.

Which it is. It’s okay to choose not to do something, and in fact we want our kids to feel autonomy about making choices. But for some kids, without any encouragement, they simply will never try anything new or slightly challenging. And that’s not a good way to go through life.

I understand this trepidation. Nobody likes trying something new that seems either too hard (“It might be super embarrassing if I’m terrible at it”), too scary (“This is too high [or hard or deep] for me”), or too dangerous (“I might get hurt”). When it comes to jumping off some random, dangerous cliff or riding on the top of a teenage friend’s car, we want our kids to autonomously choose NOT to try certain new things.  

Keeping ourselves feeling comfortable and safe is, for the most part, a good inclination. It often prevents us from doing things that are dangerous. However, for some kids, the most fearful and anxious ones, that inclination goes too far and keeps them from discovering new and fun people and things.

For most of life’s challenges — reaching out to someone for a job we’re interested in, approaching someone who we think could be a good friend, trying a new outdoor sport that could be fun — facing a bit of trepidation is actually required. And, in fact, the bit of anxiety we have before an important speaking gig or a new thing we’re trying helps fuel our success. Most growth and learning happens in that magical space just outside our comfort zone, where we are a bit scared or challenged. To understand how important it is to help your fearful child get out of their comfort zone, ask yourself this question about your own life: If I had never done anything that made me nervous, where would I be today?

How do kids ever figure out what they like to do? The same way adults figure it out. We try. Until we try something, we don’t know if it is great fun or something we actually don’t enjoy.

For fearful kids to grow (and get less fearful), we need to help them learn to give themselves small challenges. A place to start is figuring out what your child’s comfort zone is because, like all people, comfort zones vary greatly depending on the temperament of the child. Even within my extended family, we have kids and adults who are either the first to jump off the zipline platform or who end up climbing back down the ladder.

“I don’t like waterskiing.”

When we train our counselors, we are careful to explain that we want to ENCOURAGE kids to try new things without FORCING them to do anything. This is a hard line to walk, as kids vary so much in the size of their comfort zone, and it’s difficult to tell sometimes where they are.

Actually, it’s not that hard to tell. A fearful kid will often say they “don’t like” a certain activity. Sometimes they will even try to convince others that it’s not fun. “I don’t like going in the lake,” or “I don’t like watersports,” they’ll say.

It’s simply not comfortable (nor cool) to say, “I AM SO SCARED OF GOING IN THE LAKE THAT I’M FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW!” Our counselors understand this, so they know how to talk kids through their feelings of discomfort.

Questions they ask include:
“What don’t you like about the lake?”
“Is there something I can do to help make you feel more comfortable?”
“What if I go in with you?”
“Would you like to watch some other kids try it?”

Challenge by Choice

We explain the concept of “challenge by choice” to campers. We let them know that we want them to grow while they’re at camp, and that growth occurs when they try new things and overcome some fears.  We will encourage them to try, but it’s ultimately up to them to decide how much they want to challenge themselves.

One of the greatest things that happens for kids at camp is that they push themselves to try new things — even things they are scared of and that are outside their comfort zone.  

The Different Zones

Kids understand and relate to the concept of getting outside their comfort zone. But how as adults who work with and parent kids do we figure out what each child’s comfort zone is? Having a conversation with them about it is a great starting point.

A Dutch counselor gave me an illustration this summer (see below) of how to think (and talk) about our comfort, growth, and blackout zones. We each have a zone of activities and things we feel comfortable doing. Often, many of these things started in the growth or blackout areas but with practice moved into our comfort zone. Public speaking is an example of something that for many of us strikes fear in our hearts and stays in the growth or blackout zones throughout our lives. As a ninth-grader in speech class, I remember the anxious feelings leading up to the day I had to give a short talk about how to bake blueberry bars. I was petrified and I can still remember how my stomach was upside down as I waited to speak. But the experience of speaking in public, which was definitely on the border of blackout for me, led to it moving more into my growth zone. Much of what I now do in my profession involves public speaking, and while doing so in front of a large number of campers is well within my comfort zone, there are other groups (e.g., 100+ adults) that definitely put me right back into “growth zone,” which motivates me to prepare better and work harder for those gigs.

For some of us, and for kids as well, the comfort zone is quite large and trying new things is not such a leap. But for others, the comfort zone might be very small; that is, there are very few things they might be willing to try since so many things make them uncomfortable.  I’ve created a PDF download of ways to determine whether an activity or event is in your child’s comfort zone, growth zone, or blackout zone and tips to help your fearful child get out of their comfort zone.

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What Parents Can Do

#1 Let them do it alone

Many parents marvel at the new things their kids try at camp — activities they’ve refused to do with their family. They ask, “How did you get him to go waterskiing? We’ve tried for years and he wouldn’t go.”

As parents, we seem to bring out the most fear in our kids. Maybe it’s because we’ve been with them since they were babies and they feel less courageous when they’re with us. I’ve been convinced through my observations of kids at camp (and through personal experience with my own five children) that kids are, for the most part, MUCH better at trying new things and getting outside their comfort zone when parents are not hovering nearby (especially when those parents have worried expressions on their faces).

So one simple idea for parents to encourage fearful kids to try new things is to figure out other trusted adults with whom your child might try something new. Sometimes not spending too much timing talking about it (or hovering nearby) is all our kids need from us to muster the courage they need.

This is a hard truth to swallow as parents: that much of the greatest growth our kids will experience will be when we’re not around. It’s natural, though. After all, we are wired to help and support and keep our children comfortable, and when we’re around, we can unwittingly impede growth and limit opportunities.

We can be there for our kids, prepping them, cheering and encouraging, and debriefing with them after challenges. And yet, for some reason, our presence often serves as a crutch for our kids they often fall back on at the slightest sign of discomfort.

#2 Practice “baby steps”

The boy who wanted to be “satisfied” and not try the watersports? He ended up trying kneeboarding, and the pride in his voice when he reported to me about it was yet another illustration that it was, in fact, a good thing for him to try something a bit more challenging. Feeling comfortable and “satisfied” is good, but the greatest things in life happen in the growth zone, whether at summer camp or anywhere else.

Related:

Resources for Parents of Introverted or Sensitive Kids

The Blessing of the Least Favorite Activity

Three Character Traits Kids Develop at Camp

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