Special event coming up? Try a practice run beforehand

Laura illustrates the benefit of practice when it comes to kids:

I have 2.5 year old twin boys. It seems like whenever we fly by the seat of our pants for special events, we learn something we wish we had known ahead of time. We've learned to do trial runs when an event is important to us. We tried out birthday cake before their first birthday only to find out they cried when presented with this new food. After three trial runs, they stopped crying and we were able to enjoy their real first birthday.

I didn't realize this was a hack until I mentioned it on my blog. We wanted to have a fire in our fireplace on Christmas Eve. One of my boys, Alex, is afraid of everything so we decided to try out our fireplace ahead of time. Good thing we did our trial run because it turns out there is a hornet's nest in our chimney, and my husband and I were treated to an afternoon of killing hornets in our living room. [I'm just imagining poor Alex's reaction to that. — Ed.]

We saved ourselves from quite possibly the worst Christmas Eve ever.

(Laura details the full story on her blog.)

I can't agree more. Especially if your kid is anxious. Any measure of predictability helps kids get through new situations. Even something as simple as a new pair of dress shoes or a fancy dress can set kids off. We practice "greeting" manners before parties, we write out lists of events of the day…there are so many ways to break down the notion of the "trial run."

How do you prepare your kids for special events, or, for that matter, any new situation?

Related: "Social stories" coach kids through transitions and new situations


  1. Debi says

    This is a great reminder. I will have my daughter practice how to receive gifts that she may not like without hurting the feelings of the giver. :)

  2. says

    My husband and I were talking about giving our similar in age son the allusion of being “in control” and how this tactic is saving our hides and avoiding excess tantrums

    We have starting a hyping up how awesome whatever is going to happen next to get him to comply.

    This has worked wonders with all the recent “special holiday activities” that have disrupted the almightly schedule.

    Then there are the days we result to outright bribery.

  3. says

    Right on! This may save on tears (though they may make for classic pictures) when meeting Santa Clause. I quizzed my 2.5 yr. old before meeting Santa. What color does he wear? “Red!” And his hair? “White! And Mom, he’s gonna be nice.” No crying this year, despite the terrified girl before him!

  4. says

    We use picture schedules, another hack I got for my youngest autism therapies that has also worked well for her older sister.

    A recent trip to the German Club for an extend family Christmas party had the following pictures

    – Food / lunch
    – Magic Show
    – Clown
    – German Dancing
    – Santa
    – Presents
    – Car
    – Home

    Which worked very well with both my PreSchool children. The oldest is only just learning to read so the pictures helped her connect to the words. The youngest has trouble with change (the autism thing) so it was great for her to know each transition before it happened.

    Having a picture schedule requires a bit of work before hand but pays off in happy kids at the event.

    Now if only I could figure out a way to ease my oldests concerns about starting school next year.

  5. says

    @Marita, a lot of schools allow visits and tours, and multiple ones may be possible. Ask them, and see what they have as options.

    We recently had a spectacular (in the good sense) trip to the ER for staples (instead of stitches) for the daughter who has suffered from anxiety (especially regarding strange people). We’ve been working on the anxiety issue for a while, and she’s a lot better. But still, ER, injury, etc.

    Couple things that seemed to help:

    1) being positive myself. It was an adventure! We were both going on the adventure together.

    2) Talking about the maybes in generally positive terms – the danger zone for her is locking too hard into what WILL happen, when there may be variables outside my (or her) control. So, ‘might be stitches, might be glue, might be butterfly bandaids, I don’t know, but they’ll figure out which will work best’ and ‘I don’t know when the nurse will be back, there are many people here who need her help, so we’ll have to wait and find out’ (both stated positively).

    3) distractions that are engaging for when things aren’t going quite as expected. Fortunately, the children’s hospital provides those. Having something to do when there’s either nothing to do or the thing ‘to do’ isn’t enjoyable or is overwhelming is another good strategy.

    There’s not a lot of opportunity to practice going to the ER (okay, hopefully!), but one of the other practice things we did was talk about the other times her brothers had been in the ER – so she could picture them being there before her. She was very interested in that, too.

    Anyway, it worked out well, she was patient and calm, she engaged with the adults, made fish faces at the nurse holding her head still while she got the staples, and then demanded to go back to school (she went the following day instead).

    We also find that going to formal events as often as we can has set a lot of the expectations for how to act at one. My mom takes them to openings of exhibits at museums (not quite black-tie, but dress-up), and we do dance events (also dress-up), and the two make things like weddings a lot more comfortable for them.

  6. Tracy says

    We always prepare for for new, unfamiliar experiences be practicing for them with games. For example, This year was my 22-mo-old’s first Halloween as an active participant. We played the trick-or-treat game with small toys, grapes, or whatever was around for a week. His competence and confidence rose as he caught on to the game. He was fabulous on H-day and had a great time!

  7. Amy says

    My youngest sisters just got their ears pierced. Mom was careful to go over with them exactly what would happen: that first you get to pick out which earrings you want, that it will hurt like a shot, and then it stops hurting after just a minute and you get to look at your pretty new earrings! As long as they are prepared in a realistic and positive way, they can handle anything. The lady at the jewelry counter actually said to the girls: “It won’t hurt! Your Mommy wouldn’t do anything to hurt you!” My mom just about flew over the counter to get that woman to stop lying to her children!

  8. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Amy: That’s terrible! How people actually think lying comforts kids I’ll never know.

  9. says

    I agree, I hate the ‘it won’t hurt’ and worse, after the fact, saying ‘that didn’t hurt, now did it?’ when the child is in tears.

    I understand the intent of minimizing and of not setting up expectations of pain when it is possible it might not be that bad. Just like I hate all the ‘oh, labor is HORRIBLE AGONY’ comments, when for me, labor isn’t. Isn’t for my sister, either. Not comfy, but nowhere near ‘agony’. Setting a range of expectations is more accurate, but many people can’t figure out how. It’s a skill we don’t teach. I try to be prepared to coach people with a better response when I can, and sometimes I’ll translate: “what she means is that it is usually pretty minor, and that you should trust that I wouldn’t do anything cruel to you. It’s okay to be nervous, but there’s no need to be overly worried.” or whatever. Help them along in the skill development. Hard to remember if I’m really ticked at what they said, though…

  10. Nicole K says

    My son is 21 months old and is pretty friendly but needs a little time to warm up to strangers. I’ve taken to spending time throughout the day telling my son all about the new person we’re going to meet. I have him practice saying their name (this is a huge hit with the new person when my toddler can say their name right away!) and I tell him anything I can think of about the person. We look at a photo of the person if I have one handy. By the time we meet the new person my son feels like he already knows them and warms up a lot faster. We avoid the ten minutes of him staring without speaking and make a much better first impression.

    My friend does something similar with her daughter who is very slow to warm. Before a doctor visit they read books about going to the doctor and role play what will happen with her stuffed animals. You can do this for just about any scenario. If you can’t find books, just draw a simple picture and make up a fun story.

    I take my son to the dentist with me for cleanings so that when he turns 3 he won’t be freaked out about getting his teeth checked and cleaned. I’m planning on letting him sit in the big chair on the visit preceding his just to get him used to it.

  11. Katherine says

    Just ran into this post via a link, and had to comment:

    “Just like I hate all the ‘oh, labor is HORRIBLE AGONY’ comments, when for me, labor isn’t.”

    Quit hating, Hedra, and count your blessings. :) For me it was the worst pain I could imagine experiencing. And then it got worse. And that was hours before I was dilated enough for labor and delivery to admit me. If I had thought of it in time, I would have found a way to run my foot over with my car. I doubt I would have noticed the pain, and the ER would have gotten me some drugs.

    In a way, I felt like those kids who are told a shot won’t hurt. My mom and grandma had relatively easy labor, and they pooh-poohed the “labor is HORRIBLE AGONY” comments too. So when I found myself in what was in fact horrible agony, I felt just a bit betrayed. (In between contractions, that is, when I had time to think about it.)