Does your child often hang back from enjoying themselves when an experience falls outside their comfort zone? Whether the fear that’s stopping them is real or imagined, the good news is, you can help them learn to cope, conquer their nervousness and become the carefree, confident kid they want to be!
Identifying the Big Bad
Helping your child identify what’s scaring them – and why – is the first step to tackling their fear. Giving whatever is frightening them a name makes the situation or object real, and that makes it something you can face down together. Leave a scary “it” unidentified and your child is powerless against that fear – and their imagination can run wild and make the situation worse.
But Ronald Rapee, Ph.D., co-author of Helping Your Anxious Child, asserts that children can effectively master their anxiety and nervousness by learning to think in a very practical, realistic way – what he calls “detective thinking.” How to do it? Encourage your child to explore the thoughts that are frightening them, and to look for and examine evidence that will support or deny those feelings.
“If children can change their thoughts, they can also change how they feel,” says Rapee. To facilitate the process, he recommends asking your child three key questions: “What happened to scare you?”, “What were you thinking?”, and “What were you feeling?” Once your child answers, determine together the degree of fear they felt, using a scale of 1(very relaxed) to 10 (extremely worried).
Changing Their Attitude
You can help your child change how they think about a particular potential danger, agrees James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried: A Guide for Kids, who suggests urging your child to imagine a best case scenario with regard to a perceived threat, in order to defuse the situation and deliver a sense of calm.
“When you turn the switch from negative to positive, the body reacts. You start to feel calmer and stronger,” explains Crist. “Although you may still have a few butterflies in your stomach or sweaty palms, you’ll be able to think more clearly. Tell yourself, ‘I can handle it,’ and you’ll start to feel more confident.” The strategy works not only when children are in a situation that feels scary, he adds, but at other times, too. “Positive thinking can help… every day.”
Thinking the Worst
Conversely, having your child imagine the worst that could happen, whatever the situation is that’s holding them back (such as sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time or speaking in front of their class), is another way to flip that switch from fear to just fine.
Purposely thinking about the fear repetitively can help desensitize your child to its source, says Crist. “Usually, most kids try to avoid thinking about what they’re worried about, to get it out of their mind. But by repeating the fear over and over, your mind gets used to the thought.” He explains, “Suppose you spend time thinking, ‘I’m afraid of storms, I’m afraid of storms,’ and then you write it down 50 times. You may notice that the words no longer feel as scary.” Instead of putting it down on paper, kids can say the words aloud in a singsong chant, like a mantra, to feel more empowered.
Building Their Confidence
As your child starts to step outside their comfort zone, be sure to recognize and reward even the smallest acts of bravery. “By pointing to and focusing on their successes, you will help your child to build self-confidence, as well as help them realize what they’re capable of,” says Rapee. “In addition to looking for naturally occurring bravery, at times you may want to encourage your child to do things that are a little challenging for them.” Whether they use a diversionary tactic or face their fear head-on, their courage should be given its due, either through acknowledgment and praise or a meaningful reward.