By Bridgett Ross
“Use the brakes! Use the brakes!” I shouted, watching my son soar downhill on his bike and into a parked car. Per my hopes, he took a chance, tried something new, and risked falling. I ran to my crumpled, crying boy. Thankfully, he was not hurt, but the fall shook him.
In rock climbing, overcoming fear has always been my biggest challenge. I have some pretty embarrassing stories about freaking out on climbs. Over the years, I have expanded my comfort zone and learned to stay focused in the face of fear. How? By taking responsible risks, making mistakes, and feeling emotions like fear, disappointment, and discouragement. When my son peers up at me through frightened, tearful eyes, I want to save him from pain. If I am overprotective, however, he will not learn all that nature can teach. How do I help my son push through fear, while keeping him safe and being sensitive to his feelings?
Know Thy Child, Know Thyself
People experience fear when circumstances out of their control cause them to feel unsafe, insecure, or powerless. Feeling fear does not necessarily mean something is wrong. Acknowledging the ways you and your child relate to fear can allow you to control the way you approach scary situations. Be aware of expectations, personality traits, behavioral tendencies, strengths, limitations, and coping mechanisms that you and your child have with regard to fear. Also, of what is your child afraid? Falling? Getting hurt? Making mistakes? Looking stupid? Not knowing what to do? It is not always obvious. Rebecca I. acknowledged that It gets embarrassing for me when all the other kids her age are participating and she’s clung to my leg. I’ve learned just to be there for her, don’t push, but support. By acknowledging her daughter’s tendency to cling and her feeling of embarrassment, Rebecca actually gains the power to determine how to respond to the situation in an effective and supportive way.
Prep Talks and Pep Talks
I try and help by telling [them] it’s okay to feel scared. To me what’s important is truly listening to their fear and rationalizing it together. Abigail P., mother of two. Before getting on the wall, my son and I always review the most important things when rock climbing: (1) Be safe and (2) Have fun, in that order. Prep talks often include a description of what we are about to do and how to stay safe. Part of the prep might also include a conversation about expectations and fears. Like Abigail says, it can be so helpful to listen to a child’s fears so you can validate (It makes sense that you’re afraid), then work through the fear or come up with a plan to handle it.
Here are some tips you might find helpful if finding yourself preparing a scared child to face his or her fears:
- Abandon achievement-oriented goals for now. Diego Aldrete, rock climbing guide from California, makes it very clear that that the goal is to have fun, and it does not matter if they don’t reach the top. This attitude leaves a lot of room to praise progress, bravery, and positive attitudes.
- Let children know you will meet them in their comfort zone, and then gently and gradually encourage them to expand it. Teach them that this will help them to be less afraid. Kirsti W. described helping her son overcome the fear of jumping in the pool: Initially he sat on the side and held the teacher’s hands to go in. Then when he felt comfortable he stood up and still held her hands?? and so on. Now he jumps in alone.
- Give children a sense of control in any way possible. They choose when to start and stop, even when they are afraid. They can do something alone or with you. They can take breaks. If possible, allow children to decide how they want to handle fear. Laura M.’s encouraging pep talks can go a long way: You can do it. You’re a big girl. Look how fun it is!
Fear is Here
Your child is doing the thing he set out to do and is now afraid. Or maybe he fell or made a mistake and is afraid to try again. What do you do? If you made a plan that involved overcoming fear or bouncing back from failure, that can be a great start. If not, this would probably be a good and natural time to validate the feelings and then develop a plan for how to get back to the activity. As mentioned before, encouragement can give children the confidence to step outside their comfort zones. Praising such courage will likely lead a child to try again. When helping a scared child climb, Diego asks them to hang on the rope if they are struggling regardless of performance I congratulate them at the end of the climb for having faced their instinctive fear of heights. In addition to praising courage, it can help to compliment good falls as fear can sometimes be less about getting hurt and more about making mistakes.
Diego also stated, It has to be a very gentle and gradual progression. In fact, a consistent theme in talking to coaches and parents is that encouraging children to take gradual steps toward overcoming fear is much more effective than throwing them into the deep end. Another important component of facing fears is ensuring that the scared person has some sort of control. Ideally, and if you could read minds, you might hear a person managing fear thinking something like I’m scared. I have a choice. I can back down or I can face my fear. I can still do this even though I’m scared. Here I go. I’m taking a step. I did it. That wasn’t so bad. The line between pushing someone too far and giving them the opportunity to push themselves can seem faint, so be patient and bear in mind it may take some practice.
Leading by example (i.e., modeling) can also help children manage apprehension and fear. Laura M. said, If [my daughter] still doesn’t want to [do something] I may do the activity with her. Another example might include slowing your breath and speaking calmly in hope that the scared child mimics your demeanor. Sometimes parents use their own experience of overcoming fear to validate the feeling and to offer an example of how to face it. Tread lightly with sharing personal experiences, however, as it can backfire. Some children feel more discouraged when they hear stories of personal triumph (I’m not you!), it can be better to focus on their own experiences and what works for them.
A Note on Fearless Children
Fearless children generally need the emphasis to be on safety over fun. Diego says that If the kid does not show much fear and is too reckless? I act a bit stern and make sure they follow my rules. Again, the child has a choice: Do the activity safely or don’t it at all.
Did Your Son Get Back on the Bike?
Here is how I used what I learned in writing this article to get my son back on his bike. As I approached my son, I kept in a mind that when he is upset he needs quiet and that he sometimes does not like to be touched when he fails. I also had to keep my desire to teach him to overcome obstacles on the back burner. I sat with him. I listened to his anger and disappointment about falling. I listened to his fears. When he was ready, I gave him a hug. I asked my usual question: Are you more hurt or scared? He was a little of both, but mostly okay. When he calmed down, I asked if he wanted to get back on the bike. He said no. In my mind, I acknowledged my disappointment, but chose not to express it. Instead, I focused on validating the feeling; after all, it did make sense that he didn’t want to ride the bike. We sat silently a bit longer. Then I offered a small step toward facing the fear: What if you rode the bike very slowly on flat ground. He negotiated, OK, but only to that tree. He sat on the bike and pedaled to the tree, stopping about every 2 feet.
I enthusiastically praised him for getting back on the bike even though he felt scared. Then we ate a snack, raced around the tree, and went home.
Bridgett Ross is a rock-climbing mom and psychologist in San Diego, CA. Four years ago, she started the Rock Climbing Moms (& Dads) to celebrate rock climbing parents and share tips on maintaining an outdoor lifestyle with children. To contact Bridgett or learn more about her psychology practice please visit Ross Psychology [www.rosspsychology.com].