I’ll admit it: Growing up, I was afraid to try new things.
I didn’t want to do anything that I wasn’t good at—what was the fun in that? And if I wasn’t certain that I would excel at an activity or skill, I usually chose to avoid it.
Now that I have a mini-me running around, I sometimes see this trait repeating. “I can’t do that, Mommy,” she’ll say. “I don’t know how.” Or, “That’s not for little girls.”
Fear is a common response to new challenges or experiences. These situations make children feel uncertain, vulnerable, powerless, and anxious. They strip away a child’s sense of security and control.
As a result, many children avoid the unfamiliar. They prefer NOT to risk attempting something new, leading to missed opportunities and setting a negative pattern that can persist into adult life.
I sometimes wonder how much I missed out on because of my worries and timidity, and I don’t want my daughter to miss out on anything. So I’m making a conscious effort to build up her courage and enthusiasm for new challenges.
Here are seven strategies and activities we can use to raise children who aren’t afraid to tackle new situations, skills, or obstacles with confidence.
1. Be Supportive of Effort, Progress, and the Process
Kids may fear trying new things for a number of reasons, including environment, upbringing, past experiences, and temperament.
Cora Collette Breuner, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington, says this fear is also common among children who have received parental praise and support only when they’ve succeeded.
This is another reason to praise effort, progress, and the process rather than only praising successful outcomes (check out the Ultimate Guide to Praising Your Kids).
Low self-esteem can be another factor causing risk-aversion in children, and showing your children that they are loved and accepted—even when they don’t necessarily succeed—is one way to ensure your child’s self-esteem is thriving.
Praising the process is also important because it shows your child there’s more than one way to do something. Ketzi Toney, a preschool teacher at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island, explains that she helps her students become greater risk-takers by showing them that there are many “right” ways to solve mazes, puzzles, or number problems, or even to complete an art project.
If you want your child to be fearless in the face of new challenges, show him that “success” isn’t necessarily dependent on outcomes. Success can mean a willingness to try, put forth your best effort, and show gradual improvement.
When your child does take a risk, point out that you’re proud of his bravery, and he’ll be even more willing to try something new in the future.
2. Make an “I Can” Can
Next time your child is worried he won’t be able to accomplish a task, remind him of all the things he can do using an “I Can” can.
You can also revisit the “I Can” can, asking your child, “Have you always been able to do this? How did you learn to do this? How did you get better at this skill?” This reinforces the point that none of his abilities have been acquired overnight, and it may give him the courage and motivation to try something new.
3. Keep an “Adventure Diary”
If your child can view new challenges as exciting rather than intimidating, he’ll have the courage to pursue and reach his full potential in life.
Help him shift his perspective by keeping an adventure diary. In the diary, you’ll detail all the adventures you’ve had as a result of trying new things.
Write about all the times your child was brave and attempted something new, and update the diary regularly. If possible, you can add pictures, drawings, or small mementos for decoration.
Also, include details about how well your child did or how much fun you and your child had when he tried this new activity.
The next time your child is afraid to try something new, break out the adventure diary and talk about all of the great times you had because your child was brave enough to try.
4. Ask the Right Questions
Paul Smith, bestselling author of Parenting with a Story, has a list of questions you can use to discuss the fear of new challenges with your child.
These questions include:
Name something you’d like to do now but have been scared to try. How can I help you with that?
How long do you think it takes people to get good at something new, like learning an instrument or playing a new sport?
Can you think of something some people are just naturally good at without having to learn and practice? (Your child probably won’t be able to think of many answers to this question.)
You can also ask your child questions like, “Is there anything that used to be difficult or a little scary for you that’s now much easier?” Remind your child that all the abilities he has now were new at one point. He wasn’t born with them; he had to learn, practice, and persist.
To put your child’s fears in perspective, you can also ask questions like:
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
What evidence suggests that this might happen?
What is more likely to happen?
What would you tell a friend who felt this way?
When you talk to your child about trying new things, make it a discussion rather than a lecture. Listen to your child’s worries, and help him talk through and confront these fears.
5. Incorporate Brain Breaks
While you should encourage your child to take risks, you should avoid pushing too hard. You want your child’s experiences with trying something new to be positive so that he won’t become even more risk-averse in the future.
Instead of pushing your child beyond his perceived limits, let him take short breaks so he can return to the challenging task reenergized.
Allowing short breaks to regroup will help your child feel calmer and more comfortable, making the experience a more positive one.
If it’s an academic task or one that requires your child to sit for a long period of time, you can use “brain breaks.” When students are presented with new material, brain breaks help them feel relaxed and focused.
These are short activities that disrupt the monotony of a child’s current task. You can suggest a quick game of rock-paper-scissors, challenge your child to “reinvent” a random object for other uses, provide a story starter for your child to complete, etc. You can also do five different motions and have your child copy them in order, dance for a minute or two, or sing a fun movement song like, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” or “The Hokey Pokey.”.
Because these brain breaks are a bit silly, they’ll brighten your child’s mood, take his mind off of his fears, and help him face the task at hand with renewed energy. Plus, the fun memories you create will show your child that trying new things isn’t so bad after all.
6. Conduct Dress Rehearsals
If your child is feeling anxious about a new social situation, have “dress rehearsals” at home to help him prepare, building his comfort level and confidence.
For example, have your family sit at the dinner table so your child can practice approaching and asking to sit with you.
If he’s nervous about meeting his teacher for the first time, you can pretend to be the teacher and let your child practice how he will greet her.
Practice conversations, greetings, and other interactions that make your child feel nervous.
These dress rehearsals will familiarize your child with new situations, making them feel less unfamiliar and scary. You can even practice how to handle these situations if the “worst case scenario” were to occur. As your child begins to feel confident and prepared, his worries about new social situations will melt away.
7. Make a “Bravery Ladder”
In her book Growing Up Brave, Dr. Donna Pincus explains that taking baby steps toward a new challenge can reduce a child’s fears and anxieties.
She suggests using a “bravery ladder.” To create a bravery ladder, help your child identify steps that will help him gradually achieve a new skill or conquer a fear. Think of it like learning to ride a bike by starting with training wheels.
For instance, if your child is nervous about playing a piano piece at a recital, he can first perform at home in front of mom and dad. Next, he can play the piece for a friend. Later, he can perform for a larger audience, like at your next family gathering. Each step gradually brings your child closer to playing confidently at his recital.
If your child is afraid to get in a pool, first try playing in sprinklers and allowing the water to touch his face.
Over time, your child will confront his fears and gain confidence with each “rung” he advances on the bravery ladder. Praise your child’s progress to help him build even more confidence and feel encouraged and motivated.
As his confidence surges, he’ll eventually be able to face the new challenge or situation with far less fear and anxiety.
These strategies and activities help children build confidence and collect positive experiences associated with trying new things. Over time, our children will no longer fear new challenges: They’ll embrace them.