Illustration: Jason Tharp
How do parents know when to stand back and when to push? Should we urge a cautious child to action, or let him get there on his own? It’s an ongoing dilemma — we don't want to upset our kids or trample their identity, but we also want to help them try new things and gain confidence.
Take small steps Sarah Kibblewhite, a staff psychologist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a children’s mental health centre in Toronto, says there’s a fine line between being sensitive to your child and allowing him to use avoidance as a way to cope. “Take the smallest step toward the activity so they can have some experience of success,” she suggests. “Don’t put too much pressure. And don’t dismiss his feelings or shame him in any way.” Kibblewhite also cautions against making a big deal of the situation, as your child will take his cues on how to respond from you.
Negotiate an action plan With children who take longer to warm up to new situations, parents can negotiate a plan of action that will be strictly enforced. For example, if a child is hesitant to learn skating, you could agree that she’s allowed to spend the first class on the sidelines watching the other kids. By the second class she needs to be on the ice, but she can wear her boots. By the third class, she must try out her skates.
Help identify emotions Of course, some kids are simply wired to be more cautious. But Kibblewhite says certain developmental stages can amplify cautious behaviour or personality types. At about age five, kids start to learn their own strengths and weaknesses, and may stay away from something they feel they are not good at. This is also when children may develop stage fright. Kibblewhite advises parents to help kids identify and validate their emotions. “Say, ‘I know this is new for you and it’s scary.’ Then communicate your belief in them — that you think they can do it.” And if junior goes on stage and forgets every line? Praise the effort, not the outcome. Acknowledge that it took guts to do it.
Be aware of the messages you send The elementary years are a key time for developing self-confidence, and kids are more aware of judgment from others. Be aware of subtle messages you might send. If you act like their school project has to look perfect — or if you jump in and fix it for them — children get the message that failing is not OK.
Create a sense of control New experiences, such as a particularly scary cartoon episode, can be impossible for parents to predict. But whenever feasible, parents should give children a sense of control over the situation, says Gail Bell, owner of Parenting Power, a family coaching service in Calgary. “Tell children as much as you can about what’s going to happen before it happens. Talk about what that activity is going to look like and go over the routine, as opposed to throwing them in.” It also helps to talk about your own experiences, or times when your child has worked through a fear successfully.
Accept hesitancy...and wait it out And sometimes it’s perfectly OK to just accept your child’s hesitance and wait it out —they could come around on their own. When Jennifer Zelovitzky’s daughter Madeline was four, her mother enrolled her in piano lessons. For seven months, Madeline hated every second of it. “It was not worth pulling our hair out over it, so we let her stop,” Zelovitzky says. Three years later, Madeline asked to take piano again, and now she loves it.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Today's Parent Magazine with the headline "No fear," pp. 54-56.