As I waited for my 8-year-old son Norrin to come down the water slide, I noticed a father standing in the 3-foot pool. His daughter was at the top of the slide and he was calling for her to come down. She was a tiny little thing in a pink ruffled bathing suit, no more than 5 years old. She shook her head.
“She’s scared and walking away,” I yelled out to the dad who was starting to walk out of the pool.
The dad cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled her name. “Don’t be a baby. Come on down. You’ll be fine.”
The little girl closed her eyes and slid down. By the time she splashed into the water – she was crying. The dad scooped her up and carried her out. Her eyes were still shut, she was crying and her arms were tightly wrapped around her father’s neck.
The rest of the afternoon, I kept seeing parents force their kids on the slides and roller coasters. They urged them by calling them “big kids” or bribed them with sweet treats.
It got me thinking: why do parents force kids to face their fears. Does it really help them or hinder?
As a kid, I was scared of the water. I was content with wading waist deep and refused to learn how to swim – even though my mother had been a lifeguard. One day at the beach when I was about 7, a family member insisted I learn how to swim. He picked me up and threw me into the deep end. I remember panicking as I flailed my arms, my feet unable to feel the floor beneath and gasping for air.
I had been forced to face my fear but instead of conquering it, I was traumatized. Since then, I have never been in a body of water where my feet can’t touch the floor and I am still content with wading waist deep.
Having a kid with autism, I really have to listen to what Norrin says. We’ve had to work through many fears – even during moments when his fears couldn’t be understood. I wish I could say that I’ve never forced Norrin to face his fears. While I’ve never forced him down a water slide, I have made him do things even after he’s said he was scared.
While at Walt Disney World earlier this summer, we wanted Norrin to get on as many rides as possible. We tried to get him to ride Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. We used our FastPass+ and as we were about to get on – Norrin started to protest. “This is fun! And you love Buzz,” I urged. Then I made the mistake of trying to force my strong willed 8-year-old son onto the ride. After a few minutes, the cast member stopped the ride and let us off.
The following day, I suggested we ride Toy Story Midway Mania! “No. I’m too scared,” Norrin said and started pulling me away. We walked around the park and kept asking if he wanted to go on. Norrin kept saying he was scared. After a while and after waiting on line to meet Woody and Buzz, Norrin was ready to get on the Toy Story Midway Mania! He loved it so much, that he asked to ride again.
Raising kids is a delicate balancing act. Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Positive Pushing, believes that when children are pushed too hard they may rebel and if they aren’t pushed enough they may become unmotivated. Dr. Taylor has a “positive pushing” philosophy so that parents may encourage their child to be successful, confident and motivated.
I want my son to be fearful and fearless. I want Norrin to be motivated and confident. I know that forcing him to face his fears before he’s ready may have long lasting repercussions. But I still want Norrin to be given every opportunity to try new things, even the things that scare him.
Here is what I’ve learned about getting my son to face his fears:
1. Talk through it. I want to know why he’s scared. Once I can identify the fear, I can try to ease his anxiety and assure him that I will be there with him.
2. Create the opportunity to try. I can’t expect Norrin to work through his fears if he never has an opportunity to try. I want him to have a positive experience so I talk about how much fun he could have or the cool things he could see.
3. Respect feelings. When Norrin talks, I listen. I want him to understand that I respect his feelings and that he can trust me.
4. Keep creating opportunities. Sometimes my son just needs time to process his fears. Maybe he needs more time to talk through his feelings. Presenting opportunities isn’t forcing him to face his fears. I just want Norrin to know that I will always give him the chance to try.
No matter what Norrin fears, I will always listen, let him go at his own pace and hold his hand along the way.