It’s difficult to tell what will scare a child. Some will tremble at the sight of a dog, others get anxious when trying new things, like Little League or school, and some just roll with the punches. Regardless of a child’s natural proclivities, parents are tasked with helping their kid be brave, which functionally means making smart and informed decisions in the face of both legitimate and illegitimate fears. But there’s a fine line that parents need to walk when pushing a child to be brave, lest they come off mean-spirited or bullying. The key? Empathy.
“It is important to know your child’s style as well as yourself. Kids are just different. Some more cautious, some more fearless; they are born with different temperaments,” says clinical psychologist Robin Goodman, Ph.D. “A fear may or may not match your own, which can make it harder or easier for a parent to figure out and help out.”
Some schools of thought dictate that throwing a child into the deep end — sometimes literally — is the way to push a child to confront fears. But doing so has consequences and can often reinforce fears, traumatizing a child into a lifelong reluctance to face their fears. Forcing a child into an uncomfortable position robs them of choice and doesn’t help them confront fears on their own terms.
“Break it down into manageable bits. For example, talk through what it will be like, make a plan, talk about options,” says Goodman. “Let’s say it’s doing baseball: Go see the field, practice hitting and throwing at home, go with a buddy, see if the child can just sit and watch at first, etc.”
Parents will often harp on a child to try something they’re afraid of, gently encouraging continually. This, too, can create discomfort and pressure to jump head first into something they may not be ready for. Constantly talking about doing something a child fears — even in a well-intentioned and gentle manner — can discourage them. Telling them that their fears are unfounded can make a child feel delegitimize and meek.
“Be careful of what we call ‘thinking traps’ we all have,” says Goodman. “For example, a child catastrophizing — ‘it’s going to be the worst most terrible thing ever…’ [you’re] minimizing it [by saying] ‘it’s not big deal,’ ‘it will be OK,’ ‘don’t worry.’”
It’s important to assess why a child is afraid of something and to act accordingly. If a kid is terrified of dogs, it’s unlikely that a parent will throw them in a kennel to temper those fears. But social fears are often treated in a similar manner, something parents do without really considering a child’s reason for being afraid to engage, which could be wrapped up in worry about failure, social anxiety, or other less tangible fears.
For example, if a child is showing fear of going to a birthday party where a parent knows they’re going to have a good time once they just get in there, it’s not very helpful for a parent to just say, “Oh, it’ll be fine when you get there.” Instead, they should figure out why a child has trepidations — maybe there’s a child there who bullies them, or they’re afraid they’ll do something embarrassing — and address those fears more directly. “Assess the child, the type of situation, past history, and then determine your approach,” says Goodman.
It’s also important for parents to suppress their own frustration when a child refuses to engage in an activity the parent knows is harmless. A visibly frustrated parent pushing their child to engage in an activity they fear only makes the event more traumatic and can instill in a child a further fear of disappointing their parent. If a parent becomes frustrated with a child’s fear, they should consider their own fears, how they overcame them, and whether their own parents guided them in a way that was positive. Drawing on that experience, parents can talk to the child about their own fears and how they were able to conquer them.
“They can try to recall something they had a hard time with and what they did to overcome it. Honesty, using themselves as an example, can sometimes be helpful,” says Goodman. “Being a role model is typically a great thing for a child. But be cautious about you and your child’s experiences being different. Disclosing how you had a tough time and got through it can be eye-opening and encouraging.”
The role of the parent is to equip a child with the mental and physical ability to approach their fears and get through them on their own, rather than fixing the situation right away. It’s difficult, but sometimes being kind means standing back as a child confronts something they’re not comfortable with. Otherwise, the child will develop a dependence on a parent and end up ill-equipped to conquer fears on their own. Let them tackle some things on their own, and then talk to them about it after the fact.
“Be careful about reassuring too much or being the solution, because the child may then expect you to rescue, fix, or take care of things,” says Goodman. “It’s about helping the child develop the confidence to try and develop the ability to withstand if it doesn’t turn out as planned. But then again, it may turn out even better than imagined.”
And yes, sometimes teaching a child to be brave means simply abandoning the urge to force them into a confrontation, even if you’re all but certain that confronting a fearful situation will result in joy. Persistence, shaming, and aggressive encouragement can simply cause more frustration and a reluctance to pursue things in the future.
Sometimes, a parent needs to lovingly accept that a child is going to take time to confront an issue. That might mean another summer where they refuse to dive head first off a dock into Lake Winnipesaukee, but it also means when they do conquer that fear on their own terms in the future, they’ll be proud to tell mom and dad rather than resentful that they were forced to do it against their will.
“Parents always think (and maybe even know) what is best for their child, but everyone is different. Parents do need to know when they should encourage, be more direct, or let go,” says Goodman. “Pick your battles.”
How to Help a Child Be Brave
- Be empathetic and look at the child’s fear from their perspective to help it make sense.
- Offer choices and break down conquering fears into small manageable steps.
- Don’t delegitimize fears by calling them unfounded.
- Try not to harp on bravery and approach a fearful child with patience.
- Instead, offer choices and help ease them into the situation.
- Pay attention to your own anger and manage your frustrations when a kid is being frightened.
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