How does a parent know when to keep encouraging a child to do an activity vs. letting the child decide to avoid or “opt out”? Certainly I realize crying and resisting an activity are pretty straightforward and may be telling me there is cause for concern. However, my 10 year old son, Connor often says “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” Almost weekly he tells me, “No, I don’t want to go to Tae Kwon Do.” I kindly remind him that it is good exercise, helps him in school and most of all it is fun! He does enjoy it once he is in the class. I surmise there is anxiety in going each week but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. How can I help my son face his fears and persevere?
Awaiting your response,
Dear Concerned Parent:
All kids experience worry and anxiety from time to time. What child looks forward to going to the dentist? Or is eager to take the SOL’s? Most children even experience some level of apprehension when starting a new school, auditioning for the school play or joining a new sports team. And when they participate in one of these activities despite their initial reluctance, children actively develop both coping skills and self-confidence.
Every time you, as his parent, encourage Connor to face his fears by fulfilling his commitment to Tae Kwon Do, you are acting as his Worry Coach. Whether in words or in actions, you are saying, “Hang in there. Your concerns will pass. I know you can do this.” And, with this, Connor is one step closer to freely choosing to go to Tae Kwon Do even without your reassurance.
Don’t get me wrong. Helping children face their fears is not for the faint of heart. Worried feelings may be mild and manifest as reluctance (“I don’t want to go to Tae Kwon Do”) and they may also be overwhelming, constant, and distorted, resulting in absolute avoidance of perceived threats (“I am never going to school again and you can’t make me.) The mere suggestion of approaching rather than retreating from fears may result in avid protestations and heaps of tears.
So what’s a parent to do? The following are a few strategies to help your child face his fears, regardless of their frequency or severity.
Helping Your Child Face Fears
1. Model out loud your own reassuring coping thoughts
Allow your child a window into how you cope by saying out loud what you are feeling. Verbally walk yourself through your own self-reassurance process.
Try Saying This: “I am feeling nervous before the party tonight because I’m afraid I won’t know anyone. It’s not unusual for me to get a bit nervous before parties. I have to remind myself that I always have a good time once I get there.”
2. Reward and reinforce progress
Develop a simple system of rewards to reinforce progress. Be consistent and reward for a full three weeks before moving on to a new goal.
Try Saying This: “Each time you get ready for Tae Kwon Do without argument, you get to choose the family dinner that evening”.
3. This too shall pass
Remind your child that everyone gets nervous from time to time and that it always goes away.
Try Saying This: “Lots of kids have worries like this. Even though it feels really bad right now, it always goes away.”
4. Remain neutral
Listen without judgment, empathize, and calmly let your child know expectations and limits.
Try Saying This: “You’ve had a long day at school, and I know you are tired. But you’ve made a commitment and must go to each practice as scheduled.”
5. Ask coping questions
Worry is often times accompanied by pessimistic thinking. Asking questions that lead to more realistic thinking helps soothe worried thoughts.
Try Asking These Clarifying Questions: “How likely is it that what you are worried about will actually happen? Is it “possible” or “likely”? What’s the worst thing that can happen? Is there anything you can do about it? If not, what can you do to get your mind off of it?
6. Stick to the present
Kids who worry frequently predict the future inaccurately. They tend to overestimate the threat and underestimate their ability to cope with the threat, leaving them in a state of anxiety. Non-anxious kids tend to stick to the present.
Try Saying This: “Feeling scared that something will happen doesn’t mean it WILL happen. What part of this can you solve right now?”
7. Work the edges of the envelope
Encourage your child to approach and handle challenging situations one step at a time. You don’t want to throw your child into the deep end of a swimming pool before he is ready to swim. Depending on his level of anxiety, sitting by the edge of the pool with his feet dangling over the edge may be the first step for him. As his comfort level increases and he gains a sense of mastery, work the edges of his unique envelope by adding the next step.
Try Saying This: “What part of this goal are you ready to take on right now?”
8. Empowerment role play
Role-playing allows children to practice skills before they need to use them in real-life situations. Your child has the chance to practice behaviors and receive positive feedback from you. While you role-play, focus on potentially anxiety provoking scenarios and offer solutions and guidance. This will help him feel more in control and ready to handle what comes his way.
Try Saying This: “Let’s practice how you might handle joining in at the party?”
Your road as Connor’s parent is paved with lots of love, good intentions and hard work. There are few absolutes. Trust your instincts and continue to allow Connor to experience the success that comes with perseverance.
All the best.