This week I had an experience with my children that I’d love to share with you. It’s a great example on how I encourage my children to face their fears, without forcing them nor causing unnecessary trauma.
We recently moved and a few days ago we went to visit the aquarium in our new town. My kids were so excited and even more so when they realized there was a section where they could touch and feel different sea creatures.
An example of how I handle fears:
When we got to this section, my kids, ages 5 and 8, stood by the water watching Cownose rays swim by. They were in a special pool where you could easily touch them, as long as we used 2 fingers.
We went over the directions and I invited my children to touch them next time they swam by us. But for some reason they were really scared to touch them.
In that moment I had a choice to make, I could force them so we could keep exploring the aquarium or I could follow their lead and let them touch these sea animals when they felt ready.
I chose the latter.
We stood for about 30-40 mins looking at the cownose ray swim by and my kids refused to touch them but they also refused to leave. I encouraged them to touch the rays if that’s what they wanted and I even touched them myself so they could see there wasn’t anything to be scared about.
I acknowledged their fears, we talked about what was scaring them and I gave them reasons as to why this was a safe place to touch these sea animals. And then I told them when they felt ready they could touch them. I didn’t force them or pushed the conversation more.
Eventually they decided we should keep going and didn’t touch the cownose rays.
Fast forward to today, we went back to the aquarium and this time they rushed to get to this little pool. They were determined to touch the sea animals this time.
Again, I didn’t force anything. I just watched them and let them take the lead. We stood there for about 10 minutes and they finally had the courage to touch them. And oh my – what an experience that was!
My 5 year old lit up, looked at me and said: “Mama, I did it. I touched them and it wasn’t scary. They actually feel gooey like slime.” I could see how proud she felt of herself in that moment.
When my daughter was feeling so proud for finally touching the cownose ray I made sure to point out what she did. I said: “Wow! You were scared to them, but you did it and realized it wasn’t that scary after all! I can see you feel so proud.”
You see, maybe this wasn’t a big fear for me, but it was for her. It felt very real for her, so this was a big accomplishment.
I pointed out how brave she was and how much she looked like she was having. She gave me a huge smile and proceeded to touch all the sea animals that were in this little pool. We had to stay there for about 30 minutes because they were so excited touching the sea animals and they kept telling him how adorable they are.
In my heart I knew that was what they needed. They just needed time to feel comfortable and safe to touch something they had never touched in their lives before.
@mamainstincts#ConsciousParenting tip: When your child is scared, don’t force them. Read more on why and how on the link in my bio. 💕 #parenting #mindfulparenting♬ Hold Back The River (Originally Performed by James Bay) – Acoustic Guitar Karaoke – Sing2Guitar
I am sharing this story with you because they are some valuable lessons I want to share with you.
Why I didn’t force them to face their fears
When I was child I also had fears and many times I was pushed hard to face them, I was pushed to do whatever it was I was scared of. And yes, most of the time the adults were right, whatever I was scared of wasn’t so scary once I faced my fears.
But while being forced to face my fears I felt awful, I felt shame and guilt. As an adult I now struggle with feeling so much guilt. So why would I willingly put my child in a situation that will cause them to feel guilt, insecure or that there’s something wrong with them simply because they were scared?
There were also many times where I felt anger inside for being forced to do something I didn’t want to. I remember even promising to myself I would never do this again (in my moments of anger).
I know some of you might be reading this and thinking, but how do we raise fearless and courageous children if we don’t force them to face their fears?
And here’s the thing, we don’t need to force them, we have to encourage them.
Children face their fears when they feel safe. Children face their fears when they are given the space to face them on their own terms. And each child is different, so on their own terms means it might come at a different time than their sibling. It also means what one child is scared of is not the same thing as another child is scared of. And there is nothing wrong with that.
How do we encourage our children to face their fears?
Acknowledge how they are feeling
Most of the time, children are scared of things we are not scared of as adults. It’s almost like we forgot we were once children scared of random things…
Fear is a very common feeling and something our children will experience throughout their lives. Even as adults we feel fear, although the things we might be afraid of change, the feeling is the same. Which is why moments like these are great learning experiences!
The first thing our children need from us is validation and to know there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear. Because there isn’t, we all feel scared at times and what’s important is how we move past our fears.
When my child is scared I empathize with them by using phrases like:
- “Wow! Sounds like this is scary for you.”
- “I can see this is making you feel scared. Want me to hold your hand?”
- “I can see you want to touch the sea animals, but it’s also making you feel scared. That’s okay. We can wait here until you are ready to touch them.”
- “Oh yes! It does look scary!”
- ”So scary! Sometimes when I feel scared I take a 3 deep breaths and it helps me feel less scared.”
You can also ask them things like:
- “Would you like to try doing this now or later?”
- ”Want to talk about what is making you feel scared?”
- “Want to do this together?”
And help your child talk about what they’re scared of. Ask them things like:
- “What feels so scary right now?”
- “Are you scared of touching the fish or getting too close to the edge?”
- “Is this making you feel uncomfortable?”
- “What would you like to do right now?”
We want our children to feel that they can share with us their fears and that we get them; that we understand how they feel.
We want our children to know we believe in them and that we trust them to try new things when they feel ready.
Explain to your child why they shouldn’t be afraid
Many times we feel fear when we don’t understand. “Just do it!”, “Don’t be afraid!” or “There’s nothing to be scared of!” are not valid reasons. They explain nothing. If you are scared of getting mugged, someone telling you don’t be afraid won’t solve this problem. Just because our children’s fears are not the same as ours, it doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t real. They are just as real as when you’re afraid.
We need to understand what our child is fearing and address that.
In this example of the aquarium, I realized my children were scared of getting bitten. I pointed out to them multiple times how other kids were touching the cownose rays and not getting bitten. I also explained to them this is a special pool for different sea creatures we can touch and they wouldn’t put them there if these sea animals were harmful to touch.
But even after explaining it to them, I didn’t force them to touch them. Instead, I gave them space to process this information. I just stood next to them, watching the rays swim by.
I find that many parents don’t explain things and explaining is SO important! It is how children learn and understand better the world we live in. I always explain to my kids the why, the reason, and then let them process the information.
A lot of the time we fear things we don’t understand, that’s why explaining is important. But we need to explain without judgment or making our children feel bad for being scared. Explain the facts, and say it in a kind and loving voice.
Encourage them with your example
The best way to show our children to face their fear is through our example. Our children learn how to be courageous when they see us being courageous.
Whenever I’m scared to do something I will tell my children, “I am a little scared but I’m going to try this because it looks fun”. And I go ahead and try it.
I am constantly pointing out to my kids how I feel, and how I overcome these feelings because children learn best through our example, and not so much through our words.
Sometimes my kids even ask me how did I feel and if it was really scary. These are such great opportunities to talk about our feelings and how we felt while overcoming our own fears! Of course, use age appropriate language and examples.
We can say many things but if we’re not following our own words, our children will pick up on this and they will follow our EXAMPLE.
Show them what being courageous looks like, without forcing them to do whatever you are doing. Invite them to join you, but don’t force them. If they feel ready and safe they will join you and if they don’t, this just means they need a little more time to process their fears. Which ties into my next point…
Give them space to process their fears
Not everyone is the same, not everyone deals with issues the same way. Your child is not you, your child is it’s own person and they have their own ways of dealing with things.
Get to know your child and give them the space they need so they can explore this world while feeling safe.
When we feel safe as children, it becomes easier and easier to be courageous and face our fears as we grow. This safety net is the foundation and when the foundation is solid, we feel safer to explore and try new things. In other words, children who feel safe tend to grow into courageous, secure adults.
Remember, it might be ‘just a fish’ to you but to them it’s not ‘just a fish’; they are feeling fear. And it really doesn’t matter what’s causing the fear, what matters here is that they are feeling fear. And this is what we need to address: the fear.
It is also important to remember we all process things at a different pace, so giving them space means you recognize WHO your child is and what they need.
This is not a race
We are not trying to win a medal here for the most fearless kid, or the kid who was fearless first. There is no need to rush our children through these experiences. In fact, when we go at the pace they need, we are building a foundation of safety and trust, which in turn will helps us raise courageous kiddos.
And if you find yourself rushing or pushing your child, ask yourself why. Why are you forcing your child or rushing them to face their fears? Many times we rush our children because we have this need, not our child, but we do.
Parenting forces us to look within. Many of the things we do as parents we do them on auto-pilot – because that’s how other people do it or because that’s how we were raised. But that’s not a good reason to do things. We should parent our children in a more conscious way by asking ourselves:
- Am I doing what I think is right for my child?
- Is this the right approach for my child?
- Am I allowing my child to develop at their own pace?
- If that were me, how would I have liked my parents to handle this situation?
- Am I coming from a place of love?
Questions like these can guide us in parenting in a way that is more natural for our child and even for ourselves.
Don’t make a big deal of out fear
We all feel fear, even as adults. It is part of life, and part of being human.
The goal is not to avoid fear, but to learn how to handle fear, to learn what to do when we’re afraid.
Take opportunities like these, when your children are scared of things that we adults might consider as ‘little things’, to teach them how to face their own fears.
Learning to cope with fear takes time and patience. Our children will overcome fears at a different pace and that is okay.
You can even come up with a plan on how to overcome this fear. Include your child in this plan by asking them:
- What can we do to be more brave today?
- How do you think we can overcome this fear?
- What would make you feel safer?
You can even incorporate courage in your every day conversations. One question we love to ask our children during dinner is:
- How were you brave today?
Above all, have patience. It might take some time, but by you creating this safe space for your child, you are setting up the foundation so they can grow to be courageous adults.