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5 Ways to Help a Hesitant Child Try New Things

"Cheerleading" to encourage a kid rarely works.

Key points

  • Cheerleading or cajoling kids to keep trying increases their anxiety.
  • Children are highly attuned to the underlying motives of their parents, especially the desire for them to behave in a certain way.
  • Joining your child where she is at opens the door for her to reconsider her perspective and be willing to take a risk.

Having a child who is slow-to-warm-up and hesitant to try new things can be very challenging for parents. It triggers your own anxiety—especially if you are more extroverted by nature and admire kids who are "go-getters."

⁠A common reaction is to act as a cheerleader to convince your child he can do it. You know that your child would love soccer but he resists participating, so you regale him with, “But you're great at soccer. You will love the class.” Your child shows hesitation about going to school, so you try to persuade him with: “The teachers in this school are so nice. And the room has so many amazing toys. You are going to have so much fun!”

The problem is that while you have the best of intentions, trying to cajole kids to participate when they are feeling anxious often makes them feel worse. It amplifies the shame they are already experiencing about not doing the activity other kids are enjoying. This is especially true for highly sensitive children (HSC) who tend to be more self-conscious. Having attention focused on them, especially when they feel they are being evaluated or judged, can be uncomfortable and exacerbate their stress.

Also keep in mind that children (especially HSC) are very tuned into the underlying motives of their parents. They see right through you. They are keenly tuned in to what you want from them—what will make you happy. Looking at it through the lens of logic, you might think that your child would be motivated by wanting to please you and would change his behavior accordingly.

Instead, what I find is that the pressure kids experiences when they sense how invested you are in their performance is stifling, not motivating. They have to cope with the risk of disappointing you when they won't jump into the pool to join the class with the other kids, or when they resist joining in the scrum at the birthday party. It becomes a relationship issue that is fraught with tension. This makes it less likely your child will feel confident to take a risk and tackle a new challenge.⁠ ⁠

5 Steps That Support Kids To Try New Things

Validate, don't judge, her feelings: “I know you are hesitant to join the swim class. And at the same time, you love swimming. Let’s think about how to help you feel comfortable in the group.”

Practice and prepare in advance. Go to the pool before class and let your child explore it before joining the group. Kick a soccer ball around in the backyard. Visit a new school multiple times before the first day of classes. Play on the playground and meet the teacher. Having a chance to preview and prepare can make your child feel more in control and competent once he joins the group.

Ask your child what would help him feel more comfortable engaging in the activity. Some kids decide they just want to observe the activity so they can see what to expect. Or, they might want to read up on it via the internet.

Talk to your child about his “worry” versus his “thinking” brain. Explain that there are different parts of our brains. We all have a “worry” brain that thinks about things that could go wrong or that might be scary. We also have a “thinking” part of our brain that knows what's real and what's not and lets our worry brains know that we can handle and master those fears.

For example, Jonah was fearful about swim class. His thinking brain was able to tell his worry brain that the children always have something secure to hold onto, that the teacher provides support when they are trying a new skill, and she never gets mad at the kids. She’s a kind helper.

Guiding children to look at their fears through this lens of the worry versus thinking brain makes it feel less personal. It opens children up to look more objectively at the situation. This enables them to make sense of and feel more in control of their complex feelings—they become more manageable.

Recall times when your child was anxious about a situation that he muscled through successfully. For example, starting a new school, moving to a new home, or enjoying a group activity he had initially been fearful of joining. When Jonah gets anxious in the face of new challenges, Stephanie is sure to remind him that he has been around this block before. She recounts the story of the swim class; how fearful he was at the beginning and how he was able to tackle his fears. She emphasizes the result—that he now loves swimming, something he may have missed out on if he hadn’t relied on his thinking brain to help him work through his fear.

It can also be helpful for you to share a time when you were anxious about trying something new and how persevering through it led to a positive outcome. Children love to hear your stories.

When you validate versus judge your child's feelings and experiences, it opens the door to her feeling safe to reconsider her perspective and position, and thus take positive steps toward expanding her world.

More from Claire Lerner LCSW-C
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