Written by Doctor G

Teach a Child to Overcome a Fear

My son (8) is afraid to ride a bike. any suggestions on how to help him overcome this. I think he would really enjoy it, once he does it — kind of like swimming.

                                                                                                                          Amy, in (state not provided)

Most parents experience this struggle at times. A child is letting fear hold him back from a trying a new experience or mastering a new skill. You know far better than I can what motivates your child, of course. But here is a way to think about bike riding, or anything new.

  1. What’s the real issue? Is your child afraid of…
  • Getting hurt? Don’t ignore this fear. Your child could get hurt, and will only be frustrated if you brush that concern aside. Talk about what bike riders do to protect themselves: helmets, knee pads, etc, and make sure he has a good fitting helmet! Offer practice on a baseball field or grassy area.
  • Failing? Of course he will fail the first times he tries. Make that expectation clear, and that your pride in him is based on his efforts, not his accomplishment. Talk about all the ridiculous hobbies people have that no one is good at the first time they try, like ice-skating. Or remind him of how often he fell down learning to walk!
  • Embarrassment? Does he want some practice away from siblings or neighbors? Does he feel like he’s already “too old” for this experience? Remind him that he shouldn’t let other people’s expectations take this fun away from him!

2.   What does he need?

  • Time? He may need you to stop stressing this for a while, just to leave it alone. Some kids (believe, me I have four like this!) just need to come to an idea on their own, or at least believe that they did!
  • Togetherness? Most eight year olds still want time with a parent more than anything else. You can use that to encourage his bike riding bravery. Plan an afternoon where you pick 20 minutes of bike practice together and then he gets to pick the next hour’s activity. You can talk about a bike excursion together when he’s riding a two-wheeler.
  • Motivation? Ask him what would be a great reason to learn to ride. Then ask him what you can do to help him get motivated. Or talk to him about swimming, and how he felt before and after he learned. He may surprise you with his insight.

3.   What doesn’t he need?

  • Shame. Telling our kids, “You’re too old to be afraid of this!” or “A big kid like you should already…” or comparing them to others will only leave them with a negative self-image and likely take away any feeling of accomplishment if they do master the task.
  • Guilt. Don’t pressure (or let your other kids pressure) him to conquer this fear just so the family can bike together. Let him know you love him the same whether he does this or not, and he’ll be more likely to try.
  • Threats. While positive motivation can encourage him, threatening him with punishment if he doesn’t try will leave him unlikely to ever enjoy biking even if he does learn how.

It is so frustrating when we know our child is capable of something but just won’t try it. Whether it is bike riding or joining a team or going to a new place, parents often feel that we can see what our child needs to do next. Remember that he is likely to try most of these things, but maybe not on our timetable, and be as patient as you can!


How have you encouraged a child to get past a fear?

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