A trip to the Dells reminded me of a classic parenting dilemma: What do you do when your kid gets to the top of the line for a waterslide (or any thrill ride) and panics? Parents feel caught in a no-win bind: Should they let their kids take the "walk of shame" back down the line and let their fears get the best of them? Or shove their kids, kicking and screaming, down a slide or onto a raft -- confident they will enjoy the ride? Last weekend, I saw each of these strategies at work:
- Push your kid down the ride. You know he'll enjoy it. And if he doesn't, it's not like the ride will kill him (or her).
- Let the kid walk back down, even if it is a bit humiliating and means your child's fear persists.
- Offer a reward/bribe. "Go down, and we'll get something at the snack bar."
- Reason/cajole the kid. "Look, that kid just went down, and he's younger than you are!"
Kathleen Olson, a parenting educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, and Michael Troy, a psychologist who manages behavioral health services for Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, offered their thoughts on this scenario.
"It's probably more important for a parent to know what not to do than what to do," Olson said. "You don't want to give the message that it's wrong to be scared or that something is wrong with them because they are scared ... You don’t want to use putdowns -- 'stop being a baby' or 'don't be afraid' -- because then you are not acknowledging what they feel. You hear parents say that, 'don’t be a big baby, go down the slide.' That is a putdown and kind of puts their fears underground and makes them think 'OK, I just need to hide my feelings.'"
But isn't that just letting fear conquer your children? Parents logically know their kids will enjoy the waterslides if they just go down.
"They’ll figure that out on their own, and if they never, ever, go down a slide, it's not the end of the world. It's not like it’s a life skill that we're trying to get them to do, you know what I mean," Olson replied. "There certainly are some things you can talk about like, not as a putdown, trying to find out what bothers them about going down a slide. It's also a chance to teach some coping skills to kids." Examples of coping skills include taking deep breaths first, or using 'positive self-talk' by which kids tell themselves how they want to feel and that it is OK to be scared.
When dealing with younger children, Troy said parents should look for ways to "declare victory" and let children feel good about what they've done, even if they don't go down a slide. "You can say, 'man, look at how high we climbed! Let's take a look down,'" he said. "Make it not a defeat but a success in terms of what the kid did."
"What you're reinforcing is that the kid did do something challenging and it was hard and he was scared and you got out of it together. Then he sees that you're not ashamed and you're having fun and that it was OK. It's not a big deal. You tried and you'll try again another time."
Children face fears and challenges every day, whether they're playing goalie for the first time or going to school or meeting new friends. Going down a water slide just happens to be a more public confrontation of fears -- where other kids and parents are in line and watching the whole scenario unfold. Olson and Troy said parents shouldn't let their pride get in the way.
"There's a bit of peer pressure in parenting, too," Olson said. "You don't want to be the one climbing back down with your kid ... You kind of want to be like 'oh, my kid can do anything.'"
Troy encouraged parents to think about their own fears. "Put yourself in some sort of developmentally equivalent situation," he said. "I know people that are really talented psychologists who would rather do almost anything than speak before 200 people ... Why would you make that person who truly, truly finds public speaking terrifying -- why would you make him do that?"