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Helping a child who's afraid to take risks

Published on: October 01, 2006

Some kids seem fearless. They bounce from one activity to another,
eager to be the first on the monkey bars, the first up at bat and the
first to offer the solution to the algebra problem -- whether it's the
right one or not.

If that sounds like your child, stop reading right here and hand this
column to your friend -- the one with the son or daughter the experts
like to call "risk-averse." This is the kid who needs to be pushed to
try new things; who will answer a question in class with "I don't know"
rather than risking a wrong reply; who's reluctant to pick up the bat
because he (or she) might strike out.

Failure, for these children, is not an option.

Why do some kids seem to approach transitions and challenges with ease,
while others find the same situations scary and intimidating?

Typically, there's not one specific reason, says Chris Ladish, M.D.,
coordinator of pediatric neuropsychology at Mary Bridge Children's
Hospital in Tacoma. Multiple factors, including temperament, past
experiences, upbringing and environment all come into play, Ladish
says. "Some children are more naturally eager to try new things, while
others may be more reluctant."

While most kids recognize there's an element of the unknown in new
tasks, they don't necessarily steer clear of them. But for certain
children, Ladish notes, merely attempting something unfamiliar provokes
anxiety.

Often, early experiences help set the stage for the way kids view
challenges later on. For example, if they've received parental support
only when they succeed, chances are they aren't set up to fail, says
Cora Collette Breuner, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at
Children's Hospital and the University of Washington.

And depending upon the way success is defined at home and at school,
"success" to some might mean "failure" to others, Ladish notes.

Is success about playing the game or about winning? About attempting
the puzzle or about matching all the pieces? About tackling the math
problem or getting 100 percent? "Is it the effort or the outcome? You
can have a failed outcome, but success in terms of putting forth your
best efforts," Ladish points out.

Some risk-averse children suffer from self-esteem issues, according to
Ketzi Toney, preschool teacher at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on
Mercer Island. "If children feel more confident with who they are, they
take more risks," Toney says. "Kids out of their comfort zone have a
harder time trying new things. Feeling loved, comfortable, safe and
valued gives children the freedom to experiment."

Toney uses strategies in her classroom to help kids become greater risk
takers. "I show them that there's more than one way to do things --
that there's not just one 'right' way." Mazes, puzzles and number
problems and even art projects encourage students to find multiple ways
to solve problems, she says. "They begin to see the richness of
difference -- and to understand flexibility."

She suggests parents and educators "comment on the process rather than
the product" when praising a child. "Say, 'what careful work you did!
You worked long and hard on that!'"

It's also important to help risk-averse kids recognize their own
development and progress, advises Wilder Dominick, head of Open Window
School in Bellevue. That might mean giving them smaller, simpler
challenges until they build up their self-confidence. "The message both
from home and from teachers should be that it's OK not to be able to do
something right away. Focus on, 'I'm so proud you tried that.'"

And "turn down the volume" on over-praising your kids when they do
well, Breuner says. "Praise should not be contingent upon success, but
on giving it your best shot. Your kid is great whether she runs around
with a bucket on her head or is Clara in the Pacific Northwest Ballet."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

Tips for helping the risk-adverse child

What can parents (and teachers) do to help risk-averse children meet new challenges? Chris Ladish, M.D., offers these tips:

  • Emphasize effort as much as outcome.
    Praise the fact that the child tries. Help lay a foundation for the
    child to develop a self-appraisal that is defined in terms of effort
    and willingness as much as much as in the end result.
  • Take breaks.
    None of us is at our best when pushed beyond our limits. Taking a break
    and then coming back to a task can help a child regroup and feel more
    energized to return to that task.
  • Try to end on positive notes. Divide complex tasks into smaller, more doable segments, and celebrate the completion of each.
  • Create a healthy balance between challenging projects and tasks and easy ones.
  • Review the day with your child. Spend time talking about success.
  • Catch the child doing "right."
    The more a child hears and receives praise for positive efforts, the
    more that child will come to internalize that message. The expectation
    is that this will contribute to an increased willingness to keep trying.
  • Embrace failure and assist the child not to fear it.
    Failure or lack of success is an essential element of learning that
    helps us shape our future strategies to challenges. All of us had to
    fall many times before we learned to walk.

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