I need some advice for my 5yo son and some behaviors we have noticed and maybe we need to take further action, I’m not sure…
Anyways he gets inside his head when he is approached with something that makes himself uncomfortable so much so that it almost disables him. Here are a few examples…
The dentist office – we do regular 6 month visits and he gets so nervous, worked up that the anxiousness gets the best of him. Last time four people had to hold him down to clean his teeth it was a mess and the Dr. told us, “This can’t keep happening.”
Getting his tonsils out – something happened when having him deal with the mask and all he was a mess!
Water – at school they do water day every Wednesday (now that summer started) and he sits out and won’t participate. Over the course of time he will warm up it and will slowly start to join but at the beginning he always chooses to sit out.
Lately in general he’s a timid kid and it takes him awhile to do something new on his own. Even sports I have to be right by his side for the first few practices or he won’t join. The monkey bars he wants to try but the minute he gets up there he gets scared and nervous. And there’s a fine line before pushing him to try and ‘forcing’ him – I haven’t found that balance yet either and tough love vs. coddling love. I don’t know if he fears that what’s happening might cause pain so he freaks out or what?
I also think (which I should check) that he’s more open to trying new things at school when we aren’t around. Sometimes I wonder if it’s anxiety or a sensory thing…or me over analyzing things.
Parent of a Timid Kid
Dear Parent of a Timid Kid,
I am sorry to hear that your son is struggling with facing uncomfortable tasks. Just so you know, this is a very common thing for kiddos his age. You are such an awesome parent that you probably have tried most of these actions already, but just in case I can provide something that is a refresher for you I will load you with information that comes to mind! There are a few things that I thought of immediately with the behaviors that you have described.
- Give him the freedom to approach tasks at his own pace.
This one is probably the most important to implement in order to see change. Think about how scary and overwhelming the world can be for a 4/5 year old because of all the new and foreign activities, environments and people (I will group all of these as stimuli just for the ease of writing) they encounter. Us adults see it as “so many exciting things to explore” yet our little ones face certain stimuli with caution and that IS A GOOD thing!!! Being cautious about certain stimuli is a wonderful skill to carry through to adolescence and even adulthood. We wouldn’t want little man to approach all things (getting in a strangers car, experimenting with drugs, sex, bullying, cheating, etc.) with pure optimism now would we??? When he is uncertain about something he approaches, allow him the time that he needs to process whether or not it is something to be afraid of and then whether or not he likes the stimuli. If he doesn’t feel comfortable trying the monkey bars today allow him that space by walking away with full acceptance of him and his process. “Okay that is fine. How about we try again tomorrow if you would like and maybe you go for just one monkey bar to see how it feels.” The hope would be the more tasks that you encounter together this way, he gains trust that he can explore at his own rate without any pressure; then he will build more courage, comfort and confidence to carry with him when approaching the next task.
Us adults often times erroneously expect kids to just trust if we say it is “okay”. But kids need to explore things on their own in order for them to discover if it is safe or unsafe. Place yourself at the top of a building and your Dad tells you that you need to walk the tight rope to the building across from it. He assures you that you are connected and can’t fall. Do you just go ahead and go. Or do you need to ease into it? I would definitely want to ease into it, ask some more questions, see the connectors myself and feel no pressure to proceed until I was ready!!!
As parents we also spill our obsession with achievement onto our kids and get frustrated when they won’t be superstars at everything (especially if we are overachievers and/or perfectionists ourselves!). This often times is felt by our little ones and it just adds pressure to their already existing discomfort. When we force our kids to try something anyway that they don’t feel comfortable with, it sends them a message that their process isn’t respected and it invalidates their feelings. Just like saying “oh you are fine” when a kid is scared… dismisses the way they feel and tells them that they can’t trust in you for validation, comfort and safety.
This incident of wearing a mask for his surgery and going to the dentists office, I get are kind of unavoidable tasks! However, I would guess that the mask and the dentist are not isolated events and those are a result of a handful of experiences that occurred prior to where he felt pressure to complete even though he was uncomfortable. Try to be easy on yourself if you can think of a time you might have done this. Whether at school, grandma’s house or home, we all unintentionally do this and don’t even realize it, most of the time doing it with the best intentions.
I noticed how you said he warms up to the water activity at school after sitting out for a while. This is great and I would guess he eventually warms up because he is allowed his time to just observe from afar without pressure. If that is the case, then this would be a great example of how letting him approach a task at his own pace will be helpful. Also, as you know, your little man has been through some HUGE events lately that have caused him pain he probably doesn’t fully understand. Unfortunately this has possibly caused him to lose trust in some things and it will just take some extra effort and patience to gain back some of that trust. Poor guy, he is a trooper, he’ll get there.
- Create smaller achievable tasks that are new to him in order to build confidence and courage.
An example with the dentist office would be:
1st task: Go to the dentist office and sit in the chair without fussing.
2nd task: Go to the dentist office and hold the cleaning utensil without throwing a fit.
After each small task is achieved, leave and reinforce by celebrating somehow. You can gradually build off of each task until you get to the main event! Obviously for this one you would want to tailor it in a way that made sense for you and him as far as when and what starts to make him uncomfortable. The consent of the staff at the dentist office would be necessary for this one too!
You can even create new achievable tasks that seem small but the idea is to build confidence in approaching new things. You can help him walk through a process of figuring out whether it’s safe or not.
You: “Okay so it seems like you are a little unsure about holding this water balloon.” “What could we do to help you feel more comfortable?” “Would watching me hold it help?” “If you were able to just touch it and then walk away from it again, would that help?”
Figuring out his process of approaching things and also aiding him in processing will help you both tackle things together and gain an understanding of how you can better assist him during these teachable moments. Important note: Remember that non-verbals for kids are also communication and to validate and reflect those to him often. Example: “By you being silent you are telling me that you don’t want to try any further” or “You walking away tells me that you are uncomfortable”. If you aren’t right about your interpretation of what he is doing, its most likely he will let you know.
- Identify an object that will encourage your son to tackle new tasks.
Have him pick out an item (toy, action figure, etc.) that helps him feel brave. Then have him bring this item with him when you encounter new tasks together. This one you might want to place a boundary of size from the beginning because you want it to be something that he could bring with him places and it wouldn’t be a huge hassle! For example you can say, “Pick out an item that you can still fit in this glass cup”.
I hope these ideas will be helpful and as always the most strength is in asking for a helping hand!