By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
I’m not big on typical New Year’s resolutions. The concept is fundamentally positive—I love the sense of optimism and improvement inherent in the idea—but I find few things more disappointing than blowing a self-imposed goal to become a better human. And most of us do blow it. Multiple studies report that roughly 80 percent of people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. At least it doesn’t take long; statistically, most of us will fail by the end of January. But there are reasons why we fail, and we can improve our odds of success with some simple tactics. These techniques can also help the kids in our lives set good resolutions. This can be especially important when we talk about resolutions with anxious or perfectionistic kids, for whom the stakes feel high and the fear of failure looms large.
1. Call It a Goal
A resolution is, by definition, serious business. A goal, on the other hand, is a bit lighter. It’s something you’re trying to accomplish. You might get there, but if you don’t, the world does not end. Talk to kids about things they’d like to get better at (or something they’d like to do less of) and keep the talk upbeat. For kids, this is a great opportunity to think about an ambition or intention and then plan a small step or two to help them move in the right direction—and succeed! Plus, I think a New Year’s goal just sounds more positive and exciting.
2. Make It Relevant
Wouldn’t we love for kids to resolve to keep their desks organized or to put away all their laundry each week? But kids may not (er, definitely don’t) have internal motivation to do these things. If there is something you, as the adult, want a child to do in the new year, you may need to make it a chore or requirement of some kind. A New Year’s goal should be kid-driven. New Year’s goals are a great way for kids to practice setting a goal and working toward it. That won’t happen if it isn’t something the child is interested in.
You can steer the direction of a New Year’s goal by talking about how kids might focus on self-improvement. Or you can set parameters, such as a rule that New Year’s goals don’t cost your family money. Keep in mind that goals don’t have to be additive. A great goal for a busy kid or adult might start with an idea to do less of something.
3. Refine It to Be Specific and Self-Contained
A goal for a socially anxious kid to “make friends this year” is big and vague. It could be difficult to pinpoint when the goal has been achieved. The child may make great progress but still feel like a failure. It is a great idea (kind of like the resolution to “get healthier” that you’ve made 20 times) that needs to be refined into a goal. Ask the child what they think will be different once they’ve made friends. Perhaps the answer is that they’ll have people to talk to at school. That’s great information!
So what’s a possible first step toward having people to talk to? Kids could have a classmate over once per month. That’s very specific, but it also relies on other people—parents may be busy or kids may decline, and then the goal is unmet. The best goal might be something that seems extraordinarily simple. (In my household, we’re fans of simple things.) Could the child say hello to (or just smile at!) someone each morning when they arrive at school? Greeting others is an important part of appearing open to further social interactions, so it might help a child toward their ultimate wish to have more friends. This goal is specific: the child will know each day when they have accomplished it. And while you might help out by encouraging the child, they don’t need to rely on anyone else to achieve this goal.
4. Be Sure It’s Feasible
If we want a New Year’s goal to stick, it needs to be something that fits into a person’s (or a family’s or a class’s) real life. Even a seemingly easy goal—like making more time to read for pleasure—may not be realistic for a teen who is already stressed and doing multiple hours of homework each night. Pairing or “bundling” behaviors is one way to fit a goal into your existing habits and to make it more likely you’ll succeed. For the teen who wants more time to read, for example, an option might be to listen to an audiobook on long drives.
Bundling also works for things you know you should do but have a hard time motivating yourself to start. Deciding you will get to listen to that juicy podcast only when you are walking can help motivate you toward your goal to get more exercise. Deciding to say no to obsessive thoughts or delay acting on a compulsion while brushing your teeth in the morning can help you remember to do it (you never forget to brush your teeth in the morning) while keeping the goal small and specific.
Alternatively, you can set an appointment for the goal. An idea to be more organized might evolve into a goal for a child to clean out their backpack once a week. You can make this feasible by setting a calendar reminder or alarm for a specific time each Sunday to go through the backpack together. And of course, the more opportunities you have to practice a new habit, the more likely you are to fully adopt it. Goals that can be practiced every day will become engrained routines sooner than goals that can only be practiced once per week or month.
5. Make It About Progress, Not Perfection
For a perfectionist child, resolutions can feel like added pressure. Getting an A on every math test is an excellent aspiration, but as a goal, it might fill a child with anxiety. Despite their best efforts, and for any number of reasons, they simply may not get an A on this week’s quiz. However, they can practice math every day for 10 minutes. With regular practice, it’s very likely their math grade will improve. But even if it doesn’t, they’ve still achieved their goal to practice and have learned to put the focus on progress.
Progress also means it’s okay if we fail sometimes. A family with an idea to eat more healthy foods might land on a goal to eat a piece of fruit each day with lunch. But if you’re overdue for a grocery run or on a midday plane flight, that goal might not be achievable that day. If you suspect a child will have a hard time with this, consider rewording the goal. Perhaps the family will commit to eating a piece of fruit with lunch as often as possible. Instead of feeling dejected each time a day is missed, you can congratulate one another at the end of the week on meeting the goal four times!
6. It Doesn’t Have to Last All Year
Who ever said that a New Year’s resolution has to be an epic, 12-month journey? A tiny goal that is almost certain to end in success in a short time frame is perfect for kids who feel anxiety about committing to something new. Remember the anxious student who set a goal to say “good morning” to classmates? After a few weeks, that might feel painless and unchallenging. And we should heartily congratulate the child on that, as it may be a profound success! Now, this kid might be ready to step things up. The next goal could be to initiate small back-and-forth conversations. After greeting a classmate, they can ask if the person has fun weekend plans or if they like today’s school lunch offerings.
My most successful resolution was the year I decided to learn to crack an egg with one hand. It was a silly goal; nobody else cared, and the world would not be improved if I could start breakfast like a food magician. But I always got a kick out of seeing chefs do it, and I’d long wanted to master the technique. I also knew (well, hoped!) that it wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to learn. I had ample opportunity to practice since I was the household chef. In fact, this little goal met all the requirements for success. And that meant that I was very likely to achieve it quickly. Indeed, by February (when everyone else was disappointed in themselves for not sticking to their big, vague, unfeasible resolutions), I was cracking eggs like a pro and feeling proud about reaching my mini goal. I suppose I could have increased the challenge at that point and learned to crack eggs with my left hand. But I wasn’t motivated to do that. I had met my goal and I was happy with my accomplishment. I was done with my New Year’s resolution!
Summer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Summer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.