Get Ready, Set, Go!
When he was a toddler, my son, Gabe, loved to dress up as Superman. Turns out it was a pretty good choice. Fortunately, he didn't try to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but as he got older, he became a champ at mustering courage and taking a chance. If a magician at a birthday party asked for volunteers, his hand shot up. The merry-go-round's tallest horse always grabbed his interest. New friends? The more, the merrier. Unlike his nail-biting mom, Gabe was naturally spunky, so I had to learn early on to stifle my own anxiety, breathe deeply, and let him take safe risks.
A child's sense of bravery may also shift depending on the situation. "Some kids may hide behind a parent's legs when meeting strangers but be fearless when trying out a new scooter," says Susan Davis, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising Children Who Soar. "However, the good news is that all kids yearn to explore their world." That's why it's so important to encourage your child's sense of adventure and self-confidence. These smart strategies will do just that.
Be a Safety Zone
Some children try new stuff eagerly, while others hold back because they're shy or don't want to attempt anything until they're 100 percent positive they can do it right. Change your expectations to accommodate your timid child's uncertainty.
"Rather than getting annoyed that your kid is clinging to you in gymnastics class, for instance, just let her sit on your lap until she feels comfortable -- even if it takes a few sessions," says Dr. Hadley. If you don't push, you'll give her the space to get used to the idea of doing something new. And when the time is right, she'll have the confidence to give it a whirl.
That's the strategy Brattleboro, Vermont, mom Diana Whitney took when her 4-year-old daughter, Ava, was too nervous to go down the slide on their new backyard swingset. "I just waited for her to feel ready," she says. "Once her 9-month-old sister, Carmen, slid down without hesitation, Ava followed right behind." Courage can also be contagious!
Nurture a Conscience
"Young children are beginning to learn the difference between right and wrong, and to understand how others can get hurt," says Dr. Hadley. But it takes bravery to stand up for what you know is right when everyone around you isn't taking the high road. You can help by praising your child if she defends a child who is being teased ("That was really kind of you") or she returns a toy to its rightful owner ("You should be proud that you did the right thing").
Foster Bravery at Bedtime
Okay, this one may sound a bit wacky, but motivational speaker and performance coach Jim Fannin -- who has conducted seminars for an estimated half million parents to boost their children's confidence -- says that this trick really works with children who are 2 and older. After you have tucked your child into bed and he's almost ready to drift off to sleep, tiptoe into his room. Speaking in a low voice, slowly say, "I ... believe ... in ... you." The next morning, greet him with an upbeat message such as, "Good morning, Champ!" Repeat this three or four times a week. "Studies have shown that the mind is most receptive to positive suggestions just before going to sleep," says Fannin, who has seen great results from using this sort of direct messaging technique with children as well as champion athletes.
Rather than expecting your child to plunge into a new situation, let her try it out. If she's anxious about making new friends, create a playgroup mixing old buddies with a couple of new ones. Doesn't like new foods? Serve something different alongside one of her faves. Dr. Hadley says, "A sense of familiarity creates an emotional safety net for cautious kids."
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Hold On to the Lovey
It's natural to want your child to feel secure enough to leave home without his cuddly blanket or favorite stuffed animal-and, of course, you don't want him to take it somewhere and lose it. However, it's totally fine to let him carry his buddy around for as long as he needs to, says Dr. Reznick, author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: Transform Stress and Anxiety Into Joy and Success. "These objects give kids a feeling of power over their fear," says Dr. Reznick. "Wearing costumes or capes and even talking to an imaginary friend can have a similar effect." Just keep an eye on that lovey so it doesn't get left behind.
Play It Out
Hide-and-seek is a perfect game to help young kids learn to deal with separation and the unknown, says Dr. Davis. It takes them a step beyond what feels comfortable -- you're there, you disappear, then you're back!
Instead of coaxing your kid to attempt a new sport or get on a bike, ask him to describe why he doesn't want to. "Listen without judging or trying to change his mind," says Naomi Aldort, Ph.D., author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Try saying "I see how scared you are. What do you think could happen?" By validating his feelings, you're helping him develop emotional awareness so he can make confident decisions. This paves the way to a more independent, responsible, adventurous life.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.