My husband hates when I say it, but the truth is my son is a real scaredy cat. You know the different noises a house makes- well, he hears each one and reacts- crying, hiding under his bed or in the closet. He won’t go into the swimming pool or to a friend’s house. Climbing in the park or rides at amusement parks – don’t even think about it.
Lest you think he is a total neb, he is an adorable six year old in pre-first who does really well in school. He has friends and the rebbe is pleased with him. Other than this problem, he is easy at home too.
How do I help him become brave? I want him to face new things, to trust himself to handle different experiences, and to use his body instead of freezing up. Next year he has to go on a big school bus with the older kids and he is freaking out about it already. I don’t want him to embarrass himself on the bus by carrying on- but I am not looking to drive him either.
Is there a recipe for bravery?
Before going into some strategies that can help your child, let’s look at the reasons that some children are less brave than others. Probably the number one cause is the child’s temperament: his nature that is present from birth and as much a part of him as eye color and facial features. Some children are by nature more fearful, anxious, or reactive than others. They need some special handling in this one area of their lives- just the way other children may need special care in other areas.
Interesting to note, some children are not born particularly fearful but pick up their parent’s anxiety. The Mom who declares jumping down a step as too dangerous, doesn’t take the training wheels off the bike, or won’t let her child climb in the park without monitoring each step transfers her anxiety to her children. And, even if Mom tries to restrict her anxiety to her own person and not visit it on her child- the fearful atmosphere can infect her child. Our children pick up on our cues and learn about the world by observing us.
Ironically, sometimes the absence of anxiety in the parents – a helter-skelter whatever approach towards life can cause anxiety. In a home where there is no structure or consistency, where anything can happen and does, a child can become fearful. Will we be on time to school? Will my uniform, homework signing, lunch be ready? Will my mother remember to pick me up when there is no busing? In the absence of a secure, predictable environment, many a child will develop excessive fearfulness.
You want to determine- to the best of your ability- which of the above best describes your son and then act accordingly. There are also some strategies that are universally helpful and let’s look at them.
-Teach self- trust – the trust we develop in our own bodies and abilities.
Helping children try new adventures teaches them that life is meant to be experienced and enjoyed. Though you may be nervous when your child is climbing higher on a jungle gym, don’t put that on your child. Rather, encourage him to follow his own instincts in handling this new activity. Do not introduce the idea of being scared, but if your child brings it up, encourage confidence by saying things like “Good job!”
-Maintain a balance between fear and bravery, the feeling and the action.
Fear is a normal feeling – and often quite healthy when it warns us of potential danger ahead. Bravery is not the absence of fear: it’s feeling the fear and doing it anyways. Petting the animals in the children’s zoo may feel scary, but with your support your child can try it and actually like it.
-Encourage the new and different- try new things, experience the different.
Avoid getting stuck in a rut because it feels safe and comfortable. Try new foods.
Experiment with the everyday- take different routes, bike instead of walk, match different outfits, visit new friends. Encourage your child to embrace and enjoy newness, rather than retreat into safety of the old ways.
Read to your child books about children who are brave. Talk about times when you were scared, and you managed to overcome your hesitation. Narrate encouraging words when you face a scary situation- such as running to your car in a thunder storm. Compliment your child when he takes the plunge and quells his fears.
Your child will probably never become a dare-devil, but that is not your goal. Your aim is to help your child face his challenges with courage and equanimity. By creating a supportive environment, you provide your child with the opportunity to develop, grow, and have confidence in himself.