Q: I’ve got a lovely nearly-9-year-old son who has lots of friends and does well in school. However, he flips out when it’s time to do anything new, especially something that involves new people. Every new activity involves lots of crying and protesting. We literally have to push him into summer camp. How do we help him? He can’t or won’t articulate what it is that is so scary, so it’s hard to talk about. He’s missing out on so much and has so much dread for the things he simply must do, like swim class. I’d hoped he would grow out of it, but no luck. Do we limit his activities as much as possible? Make him participate despite his protests?

A: There are so many parents reading this who are going through the same challenges you are. Whether it’s the crying, his difficulty in talking about his feelings or your worry about what he is missing out on, parents struggle as their children struggle.

There is a lot I don’t know here, and let me address some of it. You mention you “hoped he would grow out of it,” which indicates that he has been anxious a while, but has it always involved the crying and protests? Has something changed to make it more acute? Has he always stayed silent about his feelings and worries? Once he gets to camp or starts a new activity, does he stay miserable or acclimate and enjoy it? And this is important: Does your family have options about sending him to camp and swimming, or is this about child care? Please consider these questions, because our brains tend to awfulize and generalize every bad event in our parenting lives and not remember the good. This negativity bias is normal in every human, but you can combat it by reality-checking your experience and becoming aware of your own thinking.

Now, on to your son. You offer two choices in your letter about how to proceed (limit his activities or force him to participate), and I am going to guide you toward the middle. If you acquiesce all power to the anxiety (no activities), the anxiety is likely to grow, and because your son enjoys school and has healthy friendships, I don’t think you need to stop all activities. Similarly, if you force and bully him into every summer activity, his panic takes deeper root, it isn’t respectful, and you will get more and more resistance. Tough, huh?

Instead, you need to gently encourage your son to try new things while also respecting who he is and what he needs to feel comfortable. What does this look like?

1. Begin family meetings, stat. This is a tool (really, it’s just being human and communicative and kind) in which we choose a meal or a designated time to talk about the day, reflect on the past and look to the future. Everyone gets a chance to share, and no one is rushed or shushed. Family meetings build communication through safety and respect, and they also offer a gentle way of talking about topics that can be scary.


2. Give your son the parameters of what is needed and what is wanted. For instance, I need my 13-year-old to be busy (otherwise, there will be unending tech use), and I want her to go to overnight camp. She wants to not attend overnight camp (not her thing), so we worked out another plan that satisfies both of our needs and wants. Do I think she is missing out on the best experiences of her life? Yes. But I don’t get to decide that, do I? I loved overnight camp, but that doesn’t give me the right to expect my children to embrace it. (My child has already tried it and didn’t love it.) Get to know what your son wants to do. Where can you meet in the middle?

3. Do not cheerlead the anxious child about these activities. There is nothing worse than being told that everything will be fine when your mind is telling you: “Nothing is fine. I am not safe.” Do not make promises to the anxious child. Don’t promise fun or ease. Go ahead and agree with the fears. (I promise, it will not make them worse.) “Adam, it could be scary to meet all of these new people. Maybe they will know what to do and where to go, right? And you think you will not?” See if he meets your eyes. See if you get the acknowledgment that he knows you get him, that you understand his heart. If he’s afraid, hearing someone say his feelings aloud makes him feel understood and relaxed, not more afraid.

4. Make every effort to ease him into an activity. Visit the camps and introduce him to the adults he will be interacting with all day. Building links and commonalities between your son and the adults responsible for him will make him feel safe and part of the community. Additionally, give all the adults a heads-up that your son is nervous and slow to warm up. This will give your son a little breathing room while also helping the adults understand your son’s emotions.

5. Please do not hesitate to get support from a children’s therapist. A good therapist will work with your son and you to help him navigate his big feelings. Your son is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed. There are simple and effective strategies that can help him navigate the world while still being himself. If therapy is not possible, I recommend “Making Sense of Anxiety,” a wonderful course through the Neufeld Institute, where I have taken classes and also teach.

Keep trying to find the middle way. Good luck.

Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.  Follow @mlparentcoach

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