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Fear Buster: Helping A Cautious Child Reach for Success

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Look at the picture above, and you see a typical 8-year-old girl swinging happily on the monkey bars. But there’s much more to this picture than meets the eye. There is a story of quiet determination that got this girl swinging. Meet my daughter, Marley.

Marley, by nature, is not a risk-taker. She is a cautious child. In fact, I would take it one step further and say she has anxiety, particularly in new situations. As a baby she never learned to crawl, unhappy with the sensation of the hard floor. As a pre-schooler, she was the teary kid clinging to her mother’s leg at nursery school drop-off.

At age 6, we started to see the impact of her anxiety on a physical level. She told us point blank that she doesn’t do “sports.” She refused to try any activity where she had to compete against others, be the center of attention or be physically uncomfortable while learning new skills. As you can imagine, that eliminated most activities from consideration! She rarely tried anything new because she was so afraid to fail and be embarrassed.

A year later, her teachers told us that her resistance to taking risks was starting to have an academic impact. She rarely put up her hand to ask or answer questions and was not blossoming as a reader or math student. Even in writing, she stuck to words she knew how to spell.

It was obvious that Marley’s self-esteem was in the dumps. Her lack of physical and academic progress was hurting her confidence – and she was becoming miserable. Her grumpiness alienated her socially, both at home and at school. The negative attention only further fed her low self-esteem … and so it went in a vicious circle. The long-term trajectory of this path wasn’t a good one.

We knew the only way she was going to change her negative self-image was to have more rewarding experiences where she could see and feel the connection between working hard for something and achieving a goal. She needed to be proud of herself!

Our initial thought was to force Marley to participate in sports and in the classroom in order to gain confidence. Well, that didn’t work out. Forcing her only elevated her anxiety. As a result, there were many tears and sleepless nights (mainly on my behalf because I worried about her so much!)

Next, we decided to back off and try to fully accept her for who she was by not pushing her at all. Surprise – that didn’t work either. Her alienation continued to spiral.

Finally, we tried to find a balance between accepting her for who she was and setting up a limited opportunity for her to taste success. We chose skating because we knew it was an activity where she would see fast results. (Besides, she’s Canadian!)

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At first, Marley refused to go. We lovingly told her she had to go three times and then we’d talk about stopping. After three lessons, she could skate quite confidently and there was no talk about giving up. After three months, it became one of her favorite things to do.

This small success in skating opened the door for other successes. She started practicing monkey bars – at her own initiative – and before long, she was a swinging effortlessly. She was elated! She joined the school running club and although she came in 178th out of 200 at the meet, she was very proud of her “participation” ribbon. Academically, her teacher reports she has become an active participant, and isn’t afraid to speak up.

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Marley may never be the captain of a sports team or the most out-going kid in the classroom. But in her own way, at her own speed, with some loving pushes, she’s finding out what success means to her.

Hilary Bain is the Associate Manager of Communications at J&J Medical Companies in Markham, Canada.

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