Photo by: Sinakone

When Kids Are Afraid to Try Something New

by "Tara R. Wood"
Photo by: Sinakone

Many parents talk to me about the struggle they have getting their kids to try new things. It’s a common problem.

As parents, we know that if our kids just tried going down the water slide, or running through the sprinkler, or riding on the boats at the amusement park, they might actually have fun. We don’t want our kids to miss out on the fun things in life because they are too scared to try something that they’ve never experienced before.

On the other hand, we worry that if we push too hard and force our child to do something they are really scared to do we will be traumatizing them. We may even make the situation worse in the long run to the point where they don’t trust us or anything new.

Often what happens is kids learn that if they act scared enough, whining and complaining, their parents will give in and not make them try the thing they’re scared of. Instead, they will get lots of comfort, extra hugs, reassurances, and attention. Kids win. Or at least think they do. They didn’t have to try something scary and they got their parent’s attention.

Parents are left annoyed that their kid is being so stubborn. In some cases, a parent’s fun is affected because instead of getting to participate in the fun activity, too they have to sit off to the side and watch alongside their child. But, they reassure themselves, this is part of parenting and it’s worth it for saving their child from emotional scarring.

Some kids are born natural dare devils. Scientists even think they have tracked down the gene that contributes to some people being more prone to being risk takers than others. For parents of these kids, effort is spent trying to reign their daredevils in rather than struggling to push them out of a comfort zone.

For the rest of us, it may seem perfectly reasonable to keep our feet on the ground and pass on skydiving. However, any kind of risk, even something simple like swinging on a swing, may instill fear within us. We may need to learn how to take risks. We may need to learn how to face and overcome our fear.

There are definitely things to be reasonably scared of. There are things in life that it’s OK not to try. Every once in a while, we cash in being left out of an experience in order to save ourselves from the miserable feeling of being scared out of our wits. Learning to be brave is not about having absolutely no fear or having to try everything no matter how high the risk.

But there is a difference between having a few selected things that you save your “too scared to try” card for and needing a full deck of “too afraid” cards because you use them almost daily.

Encouraging your child to be brave and try new things is an important trait to develop in your child. As parents, we need to help our kids learn to face their fears and become reasonable risk takers. This is invaluable for them throughout life.

Here are some tips for helping your child face their fears:

Let them know that trying new things and overcoming our fears is an important thing to do.
We need to learn how to be brave. Reassure them that you would never force them to do something that was dangerous.
Reduce the amount of attention you give your child when they are afraid to try something new. Put your attention instead on the people who are doing the activity. As much as possible, let the only person affected by your child’s choice be your child. Let them experience the natural personal consequence from not giving something new a try. And remember, negative attention is still attention. Lengthy lectures, pleading endlessly to “just give it a try”, and acting angry with your child does not work for getting them to change their mind. They just appreciate how much power and control they’ve maintained by saying “no”.

Give lots of attention for any little effort toward trying something new.
Give lots of cheers and smiles for even dipping their toe in the water. Go back to reducing attention if they try to suck you back into being afraid of doing anything more than that.

Offer your child some choices for helping to make the situation less scary.
Would they like to bring their doll with them? Do they want to hold your hand? Is there a smaller version they can try first? Just like you might to get your kids to try a new food, pick smaller things that are reasonable for them to try and require them to try it at least once (make sure you can stick to your requirement). Give them some control over the matter by letting them choose when they want to try it, but set a deadline for when it needs to be done. Trying out smaller things first can lead to bigger things later.

Sometimes, we need to give our kids the push.
My daughter used to be afraid of going into the big fountains at City Park. I finally just picked her up and ran into the fountains with her. She screamed the whole way. When we came out on the other side, I cheered and celebrated the fact that she just did it. I pointed out that she was fine. Just wet. She didn’t immediately go back in. But about ten minutes later, she was ready to start inching her way in to try it by herself. She now loves playing in the fountains.

Make sure your own fears are not influencing your child’s fears.
Are you afraid of heights? Are you afraid of water? Are you afraid they might get hurt? Are your fears legitimate or unreasonable? What are you passing onto your child? As with most parenting, there is always balance needed. Balance when you push your child to overcome their fears with when it’s OK to be afraid. Balance means making sure you’re not leaning too heavily one way or the other.

You will probably find that when you get your child used to trying new and scary things they will gradually become less and less resistant to new things, even when they are afraid. They realize that the things they try didn’t harm them. In many cases they actually enjoyed what they thought they would fear. Sometimes they try it and they truly didn’t like it. But they tried it and survived. They eventually learn that there is pride in overcoming fear. They develop confidence. The world is not as scary. They’re ready to take more on in other situations.

They realize what you’ve been saying all along – there is a lot of fun to be had if they can just give new things a try.

Tara R Wood, M.A., CGE is an author and educator providing skills and strategies on how to create a sacred family. Tara holds a Masters in Child Development and a Psychology degree with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Services. Tara and her husband currently live in Hudson, OH with their three children. Join her in pursuing the sacred family at Tara R. Wood

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