Every week for the last month since swim lessons began I’ve watched a father try desperately to get his toddler into the pool. I give him credit for attempting everything… he’s begged, offered bribes, raised his voice, forced the boy in the water, sat next to him, joined him in the pool, left the room entirely, put the boy in a time out. Every attempt is met with more screams and tears and panic on behalf of the boy and with frustration and exasperation on behalf of the dad. It’s now gotten so bad that yesterday, the poor little guy didn’t even want to enter the pool deck and was screaming in anticipation in the locker room. Surely it doesn’t have to be this way.
What do you do when your child is hesitant-or in this case-petrified to join or try something new? Whether it’s a class or lesson, a birthday party, or fun holiday event… how can you support your child through the myriad of emotions she is feeling when facing the unknown? It’s important to first understand that what your child is experiencing are REAL, BIG feelings about the event. When your child feels nervous, she is feeling out of control. New situations feel unpredictable, she doesn’t know what to expect and that creates anxiety. Rather than dismissing her, or trying to reason with her, simple validation can go along way. Here are some ways to help get your child prepared for trying something new.
BEFORE THE EVENT:
*Prepare your child for the new experience. Let him know that soon he will be starting swim lessons, or gymnastics class and then talk about what will happen. Don’t be afraid to go into play-by-play details. “Tomorrow after I pick you up from school, we will have a snack and then get changed into your bathing suit for swim lessons!” The more your child knows, the less scary the new scenario will feel.
*Call ahead and find out the name of your child’s instructor. You can also check the website to see if there is a picture of him/her posted and show your child. Being able to put a face to a name beforehand will make your child feel more comfortable meeting his teacher when the lesson comes.
*Watch You Tube videos of kids doing the activity that your child will be doing. Be sure to point out facial expressions and label the emotions of the children. “Look, this little girl is dancing ballet! She’s smiling and having so much fun! Soon you will start ballet too!” Young children are better able to process visual information (they learn by observing first and foremost!) when the pressure is not on them to perform.
*Arrange to visit the class location ahead of time if possible. A lot of places will offer you a free trial or visit before enrolling so that your child can get a feel for the environment and meet the teacher before his actual lesson begins. I saw a mom do this at swim lessons with her toddler. They came in regular clothes and sat watching while the mom narrated what was happening. This is a wonderful way for your child to ease into the activity and will also give you something more to talk about in preparation for his class. “Soon, it will be YOUR turn to hop into the pool!” or “Let’s tell daddy about our visit to the karate studio today. What did we see? Do you think you can do that when it’s your turn?” When you visit ahead of time, or give your child time to watch and observe, the new situation begins to feel more predictable and less scary.
*Take pictures during your visit. This way you can look at the classroom/studio/pool together leading up to your lesson. You can even make up a story using the pictures and address any questions or feelings that may come up before your class begins.
*Reassure your child all along that you will be there. Tell her she will be safe, that mommy will stay. When/if she says she doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t want to have her turn at the activity, simply validate what she is saying: “You don’t want to go swimming. You feel nervous! That’s okay. Mommy will stay with you.”
*Don’t rush to the activity. In fact give yourself time to get there early. A child is more resistant when he feels his parents are stressed and that tension will fuel his anxiety. Giving yourself plenty of time to get to class will keep your stress levels down and allow you to be more patient with your child. Arriving early also works wonders for children who are more resistant. Being one of the first to arrive and have the chaos build around you is much easier than walking into a room of chaos already in action.
*Try to connect with your child through play before the lesson. If you spend 10-15 minutes really giving your child your full attention and connecting before you have to leave for your lesson, she will be better able to tolerate her strong/scary/negative emotions about the class. When a child feels connected to and supported by a parent, she will be more willing to listen and cooperate. This strong connection time will also allow you to ease her into the transition: “Okay, lets finish up this story and then we need to get ready for soccer!”
DURING THE EVENT:
When it’s time for the new experience, take it slow and stay positive. If your child is resistant and starting to freeze up when you get there, stay close, calm and reassuring.
Some things to say/do:
- “You are safe! Mommy is here.”
- “Let’s just sit and watch for a few minutes.”
- “You don’t have to try yet, we can wait.”
- “It’s okay to feel nervous! This is a new place and a new experience.”
- “I think you are a little scared. That’s okay. Mommy is here and you are safe.”
- “Where would you like to sit and watch?”
- “Let’s ask the teacher if she has a special job for you.”
- “You can choose how many minutes you need until you are ready…3 or 4?” After the choice is made, you reiterate what will happen. “When the timer goes off, it will be time for you to jump into the pool!”
- “It’s time for you to go sit with the other children. Where would you like mommy to wait?”
- “I will join you for a few minutes (while you play soccer, or join the dance class) but then I have to sit over there and watch you.”
These statements are not only reassuring and validating to your child, but you are also giving her some control by offering choices and letting her determine what she needs (rather than forcing her!) You may end up spending an entire class watching and observing-which is okay! It’s much better to ease into the process with the pressure off and allow your child to get comfortable and used to the new environment. The important thing is that you are providing positive support and encouragement, without allowing your child to completely give up.
Some things NOT to say/do when your child won’t join.
- “You’re fine. Don’t cry.”
- “Why are you upset? Why did you do that?
- “You’re making me mad/angry/frustrated.”
- “If you don’t do XYZ, you’re going to be in trouble.”
- “You better do this or I’m taking away XYZ.”
- “I spent all this money on this class and now you are wasting it/wasting my time.”
- I discourage throwing a child into the pool or handing him over to an instructor kicking and screaming. The sheer panic of that feeling will set back any progress you may have made.
It’s easy in the heat of the moment and at the height of our frustration to spew out threats to our child or to try to make him feel guilty. And its especially difficult when we as parents know how much fun he will have if he will just “give it a try,” but we can’t reason a young child into trying something—she is too stuck in her own feeling of anxiety or fear. Punishing, shaming, threatening or forcing only creates more fear and a negative association with the activity, which will be much more difficult to undo later on.
So, as hard as it may be to stay patient with your child when she is resistant to join, your child WILL ultimately give it a try if she feels in control, supported and validated by you. Once a child builds up the courage to give something a try, she will also learn that she can overcome scary feelings and will be more likely to try other new things in the future.
Comments are welcome.