Dr. Mona's Mom Blog

Managing a child’s fear of new activities and experiences

share it

Is your child hesitant to try new things? 

Children have various temperaments. Some start new activities and experiences with no issue and no fuss. Some need a lot more easing in. And others are somewhere in the middle.

Ryaan is 28 months (at the time of writing this) and we have had many new experiences for him: starting group childcare, meeting new people after being a pandemic baby, being exposed to sand, waves, the ocean, snow, starting gymnastics, starting soccer, etc. 

Ryaan is that kid who is somewhere in the middle. He IS hesitant in new situations and as a parent it’s important for us to recognize this and proceed accordingly. 

With children who need more easing in or are slow to warm up to new situations, it’s important to remember that exposure is still important. Just like Ryaan, exposure to the activity with you present helps them understand it’s safe and that you are there if they need you. 

I categorize activities as essential or optional, which can help determine how you proceed when you have a child who is extremely uncertain, screams, or is afraid.

Some examples of essential activities:

  1. Group childcare: they have to adjust because they need someone to take care of them when you’re working/unavailable
  2. Swimming lessons: This is a life-saving activity
  3. Baths/brushing/basic grooming: They can be upset, but these are essential activities for hygiene so need to be done. 
  4. Exposure to nature items: snow, water, sand. I consider this essential because this is part of our world. We can’t have them avoid this forever and exposure matters to get them used to it.

Some examples of non-essential activities:

  1. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. These activities are fun, but if they don’t love it you can decide to leave and try again when they are older or make the choice to stay to get them comfortable. We do the latter out of a desire to reassure him and get him used to said activity. 

Regardless of temperament, my advice is EXPOSURE is needed to get a child used to new experiences.

Ryaan used to cry when brushing his teeth.

Ryaan used to cry at the beach as an infant (the sand and waves terrified him).

Around 8 months, he also began crying during baths.

He cried and cried when starting swim classes for the first time at 15 months.

He had a hard time adjusting to soccer and gymnastics when he started at two years even though he had been in childcare before.

But, we continued to expose him. 

How we navigated new activities and experiences with Ryaan

At the beach when he cried, we would calmly sit with him and have him watch us play with the sand and water. When he was crying or afraid sitting in the sand or standing in the waves, we would verbalize with him. “I see you’re afraid because this is new. That is okay. I’m here with you.” We continued to repeat this mantra with every exposure. We would continue to bring him to the beach and eventually he realized this was safe.

When he resisted brushing, we would always allow him to brush first but when we did the follow-up brushing and he cried, we would sing songs and often verbalize: “I see you don’t love this, but brushing is important for our teeth” while we would brush and we would give him a big kiss after. 

When he cried during baths, we continued to give him baths. Talking to him the entire time. We stayed patient with exposing him to baths (not avoiding it). Now he is a bath-lover. 

When he started swimming and cried during hand-off to the instructor, I would give him a big kiss and say, “Mommy loves you. I know this is new, but you are so brave!” He would cry with the instructor for weeks and finally with repetition and age he came around. 

When he cried to leave gymnastics or soccer, I would get down to his level and rub his back and say “I see you’re not having fun. I am going to stay with you.” Some sessions he would go and participate and others he would sit with me and watch. But, we always stayed. Even if he cried; we stayed so he always knew that I consider this a safe activity and would be patient with him to figure it out. The following of rules can be hard for a two-year-old and I knew he needed time and patience from me. And finally one day, he began to enjoy it. He began to follow directions. 

Many times as parents, we want to leave when our child is upset with a new activity or stop it altogether.

We fear the tears.

However, tears are communication but it doesn’t mean they are “bad.” Tears can mean uncertainty, but uncertainty can be remedied with verbal reassurance, a calm adult, and continued exposure. 

My advice is to stay as often as you can. If you do leave; that’s okay. But don’t give-up altogether. 

If it’s an essential activity as listed above, I would try to stick-it-out more than you would be a non-essential activity.

We took Ryaan to a botanical garden with parrots and he cried. We left. A week later, we took him back and he cried less. Don’t stop exposing them just because they were scared. Verbalize and empathize with them when they’re upset and when they are calm afterwards; talk about it, show them pictures, and celebrate their bravery. It’s okay if they’re upset. It’s new! But avoiding experiences altogether will never help them learn.  

The Win: Exposing them to new activities and experiences

Exposing them is the win, not them completing an activity. We often times have expectations our child will happily enjoy new experiences, but this isn’t always true. Completion and “being happy” during an event isn’t the initial goal. It’s exposing them and reassuring them. By exposing them with you nearby or with a calm adult; you are reaffirming this is safe and okay. Exposing them to things like swim or group. childcare with a loving adult reassures them they are safe even if they are upset. This can have a huge impact in them understanding that these new and uncertain activities are actually okay. 

The body language and verbal affirmations from adults in our children’s life matters when they are nervous, upset, or uncertain in new situations. 

I encourage you to be patient with them (they’re kids and we can’t expect them to love everything initially), continue exposing them to things that make them unsure, verbalize with them when you see them afraid or uncertain, talk about it afterwards, and applaud their bravery and showing up!  

This combo goes a long way in making them feel comfortable and confident exploring their world. 

P.S. – Don’t forget to checkout this post on the the Pedsdoctalk Instagram where I shared our experience with Ryaan’s first exposure to the snow on one of our trips!

Subscribe to the PedsDocTalk Newsletter

The New Mom’s Survival Guide

Course Support

Need help? We’ve got you covered.

getting ready for baby

Preparing for Baby Checklist

Pregnancy and baby planning can be stressful – make it a little easier by downloading our Preparing for Baby Checklist!

All information presented on this blog, my Instagram, and my podcast is for educational purposes and should not be taken as personal medical advice. These platforms are to educate and should not replace the medical judgment of a licensed healthcare provider who is evaluating a patient.

It is the responsibility of the guardian to seek appropriate medical attention when they are concerned about their child.

All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or hospitals I may be affiliated with.