A few months ago, I watched as my 4-year-old, Sam, carefully scooted forward in line towards his ultimate destination—the top of a “big kid” water slide. It took him a little while to get to that point. He initially stood off to the side watching as kids filed past him, plunging downward. With wide and curious eyes, Sam followed each child all the way down until they splashed freely below. Forehead frowning, pensive and excited, Sam pushed forward until it was finally his turn. I saw him hesitate—he looked to me below for reassurance in the form of a “thumbs up” and an enthusiastic nod. Eventually the allure and rush of adrenaline won out and he bravely slid himself forward until he was off and racing. Trepidation immediately dissolved into a bright and exhilarated smile and a whoop of laughter as he rocketed off the end of the slide into the pool.
Conquering the water slide felt like an enormous risk for Sam-one of many that all children face every day as they grow and explore their world. When a child comes face-to-face with a new situation, whether it’s a foreign food, a physical challenge or unfamiliar people, he may experience genuine feelings of fear, anxiety, powerlessness and vulnerability. New situations are unpredictable to children and challenge their need to feel secure and in control. Their willingness to give something new a try and take a positive, safe risk in spite of an unknown outcome is heavily determined by your reaction in the moment.
As parents, what should you do when your child is hesitant to take a risk? How can you support and gently encourage him to try something new before he decides to completely give up? Here are some do’s and don’ts to abide by when helping your child take the leap.
1. Mirror and Validate Feelings. If your child is nervous to take a risk, listen to what he is saying and validate his fears while providing empathy and encouragement. Try saying “I can see in your face that you are worried. It’s okay to feel that way! But I am here to help keep you safe!” or “You really don’t want to try that right now. That’s okay. Let’s stand back and watch for a few minutes.” Staying clued in to your child’s reactions and normalizing his feelings shows him that you hear and understand him. If he feels you are there to coach him through his feelings and he feels supported, he will grow brave enough to give it a try.
2. Don’t Force It, Yet Don’t Immediately Give Up. Forcing your child to do anything kicking and screaming is never advisable. Children won’t suddenly learn to like something, nor will they be motivated to try again if they have been forced into doing what they don’t want to do. If you make your child do something before he is ready, you risk creating a negative association with that activity or even cause trauma, which can lead to deeply engrained fears that may be hard to overcome in the future. Who needs more therapy to save for?
You can strike a balance between being too forceful and too lax with gentle and encouraging statements like, “This feels hard, but we are going to try to finish it. Let’s take a break and come back to try again” or “It can feel scary to taste a new food. You need to take a bite, but you can spit it out if you don’t like it.” It’s important to stay patient, yet persistent.
3. Do Help Your Child Feel In Control. Since new experiences feel unpredictable and scary, help your child feel more in control of the situation by giving him lots of choices. “We can stand to the side for 2 or 3 more turns, and then it will be your turn to try! What do you choose? 2 or 3?” or “How many minutes would you like to wait before you give it a try? 4 or 5 minutes?” Even asking your child where he would like for you to stand, watch or wait, or whether or not he needs your help will empower him and help him feel more confident in the situation.
4. Don’t Try To Reason. When a child is flooded with big feelings, trying to reason him into doing something is generally ineffective. Telling a child he will like it, or that it’s so fun, or that all his friends are doing it isn’t getting to the heart of the issue which is that he is nervous and scared. In those moments, your reasons will only serve to frustrate, rather than encourage your child. Instead of trying to “prove” to your child how great something is, remember to label and stick with the feelings in the moment. Providing reassurance that he will be safe, that you are there to help him and that it’s okay to feel his feelings is what will get him to overcome his fear and take a risk.
5. Do Circle Back After A Success. Once your child builds up the courage to try something new, it is cause for celebration! Take a few minutes to reiterate to your child what has happened: “You were so nervous to go down that big waterside, but you did it! And you are safe and it was fun!” Connecting the dots and re-telling the story allows your child to collect and create his own database of experiences to draw upon when he is faced with yet another risk. He will remember, “I felt this way before, when I tried that big waterslide and I was okay! I bet it will be the same this time too.” Confidence grows with experience and you can help your child collect positive experiences by supporting him through each risk.
Remember, you are your child’s best example, so if you’d like him to grow more comfortable trying new things be sure that you are also modeling positive risk taking and providing ample opportunities to stretch limits in addition to being present and emotionally in tune with your child. Ultimately the hope in encouraging your child to try new things is that he will learn much about his own limits, grow in confidence and experience and become more open and willing to take future positive risks.