Monday, July 2, 2012

Ask Dr. Momsie - Too Afraid to Try

It's time for another very timely Ask Dr. Momsie question!  It's summertime, which means all things water - swimming, swim lessons, boating, water skiing, water balloons . . .   And, as long as there are water sports, there will be children who are afraid of the water.  If your child is experiencing water-related fears, you might relate to one of my favorite readers, who asks,

"My son will not ride his bike or go to anything but the baby pool at the pool. He clings to my side wherever we go and will not talk to anyone he has not met over 10 times. Help! He is so shy and scared of everything! I have tried helping him, riding on the bike with him, prizes and nothing works :("

Well, it sounds like your little guy is definitely experiencing a lot of fear and anxiety related to new experiences and social situations.  Fear is a very adaptive feeling for helping us cope with new experiences and for protecting us from dangerous situations. Your son feels secure with you around, and that is good!   This is not uncommon for toddlers, and he's very likely to grow out of many of his fears. Until then, though, there are some things you can do to help him face his fears and become more independent.  Before I share some suggestions, I want to emphasize that overcoming fear is a process.  Don't expect fears to disappear overnight or after a strategy is tried just a couple of times.  Consistency and patience is key.  

First, parents, whenever we are experiencing a behavioral concern with our children, we must first do the hard work of examining ourselves.  Many times a parent is doing something that is reinforcing and encouraging the behavior.  Often this comes from the best intentions.  For instance, "helicopter parents" that hover around their children in order to protect them, actually may cause their children to become dependent and/or anxious.  You may be very anxious yourself and therefore model avoidant and anxious responses to unfamiliar situations.  Or, maybe, when your child becomes clingy you inadvertantly reinforce the behavior by soothing, caressing, and cuddling.  On the other hand, if your personality is not the type that experiences these type of fears, it may be easy to become frustrated and resort to belittling, humiliation, or threats ("See all the other kids swimming?"" Why can't you be a big boy?" "I'm just gonna throw you in the water!").  If you see that you may be engaging in any of these types of responses to your child's anxiety, try to respond a different way this week.  Make a measurable goal of hovering less, using less threatening language, or speaking less of your own anxieties around your child.  Now, parents, don't hear me as blaming you for your child's behavior.  This is not about blame, this is about seeing how we as parents contribute to and influence our children's behavior.

Next, educate your child about his fear.  If he's afraid of drowning, google "water safety" and read all you can about how to stay safe in the water and actual statistics regarding drowning.  If he's scared of falling off his bike, first read a lot of books and watch a lot of videos about how to ride a bike.  Talk to him about the safety precautions you've taken (helmet, floatation devices etc.).  Education is especially helpful if a child has developed a fear based on an inaccurate or unrealistic belief (if I swallow water, I will drown).  I have worked with children who have exaggerated fears of weather (storms, tornados, etc.), and usually this education piece is very helpful in allowing them to recognize their unrealistic fears.

Also, encourage your child in a patient, non-pushy, empathetic way.  Try to understand why your child is experiencing the fear and reflect back these feelings.  For example, if your child is scared of swimming because he doesn't know how and is embarrassed, you might say, "It really is scary to try something new when you know everyone is watching you.  It sounds like you're feeling embarrassed that you might mess up."  Don't discredit his feelings by saying they are silly or wrong.  Instead, first be understanding and then encourage.  Encouragement should be based on effort not accomplishment or ability.  Start with small steps.  Say, "How about today your goal is to just stay in the pool for ten minutes with mommy by your side?" or "Let's just try to put our feet in the water today."  If your child feels like that is managable, then give him a reward for accomplishing the day's goal.  The reward should be something he wouldn't obtain otherwise and is super motivating (ice cream cone, cookie, extra tv time).  Pair that reward with verbal encouragement that praises his effort, not his ability.  For instance, instead of saying, "You're a really great swimmer!" say "I noticed how you were very brave and took a deep breathe and got in that pool even though it was scary! That was awesome!"  Keep your first baby-step goal until he has accomplished it, and then move on to the next baby-step (remember, it may take quite awhile until he's actually swimming!)

Enlist a model.  According to social learning theory, the best models are those that are similar to the child.  So, seeing other children or siblings riding bikes and swimming may be encouraging.  This should happen without the humiliation piece I talked about above.  Instead, try some encouraging talk like, "Look how Sally almost lost her balance and then she straightened her back and kept pedaling.  Nice move, huh?"  Avoid being pushy.  Instead, make it look fun and carefree.  Show books and watch videos with children doing the activity your child fears.

Practice through pretend play.  Have your GI Joes or dollies swim in the bathtub.  Have your teddy bear ride the bike.  Have your action figures talk to strangers.  By role-playing together, your child may become more at ease with trying in a real-life situation.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful!  Just remember, you can't overcome a fear you haven't faced.  Your job as a parent is to companion and support your child in facing those fears!

UPDATE:  Since I started writing this last week, my reader has let me know that her little man has started swimming!  Just some loving support and gentle encouragement, and here he is!  What an awesome momsie :)


  1. I am guilty of being a nervous parent. Children can sense or anxiety and become fearful themselves. You are correct sissy! I am trying your ideas and will keep you updated on our progress! Love you and thanks for the help :)sissy:)

    1. Even great moms can be a little anxious at times! Like myself for example :) hehe


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