How To Help Cautious Kids Take Risks & Try New Things
As any parent with more than one kid knows, the idea of children starting out as a “blank slate” is . . . how should I put this? . . .just plain wrong.
by Tyler Jacobson
One of your kids may be outgoing, bold and even reckless, pursuing adventures that leave you shaking your head in admiration and occasionally gasping in fear. Another child may be more cautious, taking time to warm up to new people, ideas and situations.
When your risk-averse child is at the playground, they may choose to watch other children play rather than join in. Your cautious child may also:
- Take longer to adjust to preschool, kindergarten or the start of a new school year
- Be apprehensive about sleepovers, summer camp and field trips
- Be startled by loud sounds like shouting, sirens or thunder
- Worry about exams and recitals
- Develop a strong aversion after a single unpleasant experience. For instance, they may
fear all dogs after encountering one aggressive pooch.
The Stigma Of The Cautious Child
Your cautious child may fear jungle gyms, roller coasters, and water slides. They may even be uncomfortable with challenging activities that pose no physical danger, like learning a new board game.
Parents tend to view a child’s reluctance to engage as holding them back. We may also be embarrassed our child is acting differently from other kids. A mom might fear being judged her for her daughter’s epic tantrum, while a dad worries his anxious son will be viewed as “a sissy.”
Your Child’s Caution Is A Temperament
It’s important to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being “slow to warm up.” Behaviorists have identified it as an inborn temperament that affects 20 percent of the population.
Elaine Aron, the author of “The Highly Sensitive Child,” says cautious children are more attuned to sensory information, from sights, smells and sounds to the way other people are feeling. This sensory bombardment makes them easily stimulated and prone to meltdowns.
Psychologist Jerome Kagen calls this temperament behavioral inhibition and says it stems from an overactive fear system, where the brain is unusually prone to interpret the unfamiliar as a threat.
Once you accept that caution is inborn, you can better parent your sensitive child. This includes giving your kid plenty of downtime to process and recover from sensory overload. It also involves recognizing the gifts of sensitivity, including enhanced:
One more thought. Just because your child shies from activities you once loved doesn’t mean
Your cautious son may be positively invigorated by art, music and the smell of bread baking. Your sensitive daughter may not be lonely while playing alone at the park. Instead, she may derive enjoyment from her private thoughts and the feel of sand slipping through her fingers.
Helping Your Cautious Child Grow
It’s important to validate your cautious child, letting them know all their emotions are acceptable. It’s a matter of learning to deal with them constructively. Acknowledge your child’s apprehensions rather than mocking them or growing impatient. You
might say, “You’re afraid to climb to the top of the slide because you might fall.” Having recognized their concerns, you can mitigate them.
You can share information like, “We‘ve been at this park many times and have never seen a kid fall off the slide,” or offer support, promising to catch your child at the bottom of the slide.
Helping your cautious child thrive means taking baby steps.
If your kid is nervous about swim lessons, have them watch a session before forcing them to dive in. Next, make small moves like having them dip their feet in the pool. This gradual familiarization will pay off when you see your kid happily splashing in the pool. Don’t forget to praise your child’s successes. Say, “I’m proud of you. You were afraid to go in the water, but you did it anyway!”
Finally, don’t be afraid to occasionally “let it slide.” It’s okay to refrain from pushing your child out of their comfort zone from time to time. Pick your battles, and let your kids be who they are. If you are a mom or dad who’s bewildered by the fearful nature of your child, welcome to the club. Having a cautious child serves to underscore an important truth: parenting is never a one-