Fear factor: How to help a risk-averse kid

Is your kid too timid to ride a bike or go for a swim? There’s such a thing as being too cautious.

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A couple of months ago, my seven-year-old’s gym teacher approached me as I was leaving the school after morning drop-off. “We have to talk,” he said. I knew what he was going to say—Molly disliked phys. ed. and didn’t want to participate. Sure enough, I was right. “Get her to play,” he said.

Molly has never liked physical activities; she often refuses to get involved. She was six and a half before she even agreed to don skates, she refuses to try tennis, and when we signed her up for soccer one year, she mostly sat on the sidelines.

Molly is risk-averse—a characteristic that’s not unusual among five- to eight-year-olds, according to Toronto clinical child psychologist Joanne Cummings.

Just because it’s common doesn’t mean you should ignore it, however. Taking risks—like jumping into a pool or climbing a tree—plays a significant role in a kid’s level of confidence. “When children learn to swim or ride a bike, it has positive effects that spill over into other aspects of their life,” Cummings says. “They learn to feel what it’s like to master something.” She says kids who don’t take risks may end up with confidence issues.

Fortunately, there are ways to help kids feel more comfortable with taking that big leap.

Find out why
Do your best to figure out why your kid doesn’t want to try a new activity, says Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Kids are often afraid of getting hurt. “As they get older, they become more cognitively aware that they can hurt themselves and they become more fearful,” says Cummings. Other possible reasons for avoiding risky activities: They’re embarrassed because they don’t think they’re good enough, they’re being bullied or maybe they hate losing. Have a sensitive chat to suss out the problem, recommends Mendlowitz. “You want your kid to feel safe enough to discuss these things without fear of being reprimanded or belittled.” Use encouraging language when discussing your kids’ discomfort. Gently point out that since they haven’t actually tried the activity yet, they can’t know for sure that they won’t enjoy it.
   two kids climbing monkey bars at a playground    
   Fear factor: How to help a risk-averse kid

Don’t hold them back
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Slow down!” or “Not so high!”? Sometimes kids are risk-averse because we don’t allow them to try anything, says Mendlowitz. “Parents bubble-wrap their children so they can’t take any chances,” she says. “The hallmark of anxiety is avoidance, so let them try things out.” After all, you probably survived a few scraped knees and twisted ankles, right?

Take baby steps
If your kid seems overwhelmed by the idea of a new activity, break it down into steps, suggests Mendlowitz. If your kid is afraid of swimming, start by taking her to watch a lesson to get a feel for the class structure. If you’ve already signed her up for a course, the first step can be to get her to put her bathing suit on. Then ask her to dip her feet in the water. Finally, urge her to go in with the instructor. Don’t rush it—she may need time to adjust to each step. And use encouraging language to praise your kid on her progress after each little step is completed.

Use positive reinforcement
Risk-averse kids need a lot of reinforcement, says Elana Segal, a social worker who practises cognitive behaviour therapy in Toronto. That doesn’t mean buying them a toy when they try something new—it’s about celebrating their success. “Say, ‘Let’s play a special game or go to the library or do something special,’” she suggests. Point out how proud you were that, even though they were scared, they tried anyway. And, when choosing an instructor or coach, make sure the person is gentle, encouraging and consistent. It can take time for your kid to build up trust, especially if it’s only a weekly lesson, but if the teacher is kind and attentive, then it’ll happen naturally, says Cummings.

It took some time, but Molly finally came around to sports. Recently, she picked up a hockey stick and played with me. To my surprise, when she accidently got beaned with the ball, she didn’t panic or get upset. Instead, she paused, picked up her stick, took a shot and scored.

Did you know?
The Government of Canada says children between five and 17 should get at least 60 minutes a day of medium- to high-intensity physical activity, but only 14 percent of kids between five and 11 meet the guidelines.

Read more:
5 ways to beat back-to-school anxiety
How to handle your scaredy-cat child

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