Facing fear and anxiety is no easy task. It’s not easy for children; and it’s not easy for their parents. Here’s a short piece of historical fiction that captures some of the dynamics that can emerge when you’re helping children face their fears.
My nephew turned his pleading fact toward me. He was standing on the diving board. I was a few feet below. We had waited in line together. Turning back now meant social humiliation. Although I knew enough to know that the scene wasn’t about me, I still felt social pressure mounting. If he stepped down from the diving board, I’d feel the shame right along with him. My own potential embarrassment, along with the belief that he would be better served facing his fears, led me to encourage him to follow through and jump.
“You can do it,” I said.
He started to shake. “But I can’t.”
Parenting or grand-parenting or hanging out with nieces and nephews sometimes requires immense decision-making skill. I’d been through “I’m scared” situations before, with my own children, with grandchildren, with other nephews and nieces. When do you push through the fear? When do you backtrack and risk “other people” labeling you, your son, your daughter, or a child you love as “chicken?”
This particular decision wasn’t easy. I wanted my nephew to jump. I was sure he would be okay. But I also knew a little something about emotional invalidation. Sure, we want to encourage and sometimes push our children to get outside their comfort zones and take risks. On the other hand, we also want to respect their emotions. Invalidating children’s emotions tends to produce adults who don’t trust themselves. But making the decision of when to validate and when to push isn’t easy.
I reached out. My nephew took my hand. I said, “Hey. You made it up here this time. I’ll bet you’ll make the jump next time.” We turned to walk back. A kid standing in line said, “That’s okay. I was too scared to jump my first time.”
Later, when the line had shrunk, my nephew wanted to try again. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll walk over with you.”
He made the jump the second time. We celebrated his success with high-fives and an ice-cream sandwich.
Like all words, the words, “I’m scared” have meaning and provoke reactions.
Sometimes when parents hear the words, “I’m scared” they want to push back and say something like, “That’s silly” or “Too bad” or “Buck-up honeycup” or something else that’s reactive and emotionally invalidating.
The point of the story about my nephew isn’t to brag about a particular outcome. Instead, I want to recognize that most of us share in this dilemma: How can we best help children through their fears.
Just yesterday I knelt next to my tearful granddaughter. She was too scared to join into a group activity. She held onto my knee. We were in a public setting, so I instantly felt embarrassment creeping my way. I dealt with it by engaging in chit-chat about all the activity around us, including commentary about clothes, shoes, the color of the gym. Later, when she finally joined in on the activity, I felt relief and I felt proud. I also remembered the old lesson that I’d learned so many times before. In the moment of a child’s fear, my potential emotional pain, although present, pales in comparison to whatever the child is experiencing.
If you’d like to hear more about how to help children cope with their fears, you can listen to Dr. Sara Polanchek and me chatting about this topic on our latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast. Here are the links.
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