Below is an excerpt from Spartan founder Joe De Sena's latest book, 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families. A foolproof guide to parenting from a position of resilience, the goal of the book is to help you prepare your children for ANYTHING. Click here to learn more about the book and place your pre-order today!
Parents are quick to respond to a child’s fear and jump in to “make it better.” Allow your kids to experience distress and learn to tolerate it. Teach them to manage fears and turn them from threat to opportunity. See if they can come up with a way through their fear rather than doing it for them. This helps build confidence and lets them know that you believe in them!
Here are some other ways to help your kids start turning fear into fuel for positive action.
Define 'Scary' — If You Can Name It, You Can Tame It
Teach your kids what fear is: It’s just a feeling. And all feelings are just emotions, not facts that are set in stone. Research from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has found that when we simply put a name on an emotion or fear (also known as depersonalization), the intense emotional response in the brain is soothed and tamed. This can be especially useful with younger kids, because coming up with a silly name can really help to detach any fear immediately. It’s not scary if you call it "Boogers."
Even intense feelings like, say, being afraid of the ocean can change. While you cannot teach your kids how to eliminate fear (remember, it’s hardwired), you can help them control how they respond to it. Tell your children that feelings are not an accurate measure of what they can actually handle. Just because you are more afraid of something does not mean that you are less capable. In fact, sometimes we get really afraid of certain things because they matter so much to us. For example, if you have a high schooler who is really scared of taking his college-entrance exams, well, that makes sense. He may be terrified that he won’t get into his school of choice. Help your children uncover what matters to them and what their fear is attached to.
Also, remind them that fear and excitement can feel very similar. The physiological response to each is nearly identical, and this can work in your kids’ favor. While your daughter may express fear about her big piano recital, she may also just be excited to finally showcase her talent. Help your kids shift their language from “I’m scared” to “I’m excited!”
Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss uses an amazing exercise that he calls “fear-setting” whenever he feels anxious about something. You might try this quick activity with your kids. Have them answer three simple questions:
1. What could go wrong? Define the problem.
2. How can I prevent that problem from happening?
3. If it ends up going wrong anyway, how can I fix the problem?
When your child comes up with the answers to those three questions, he or she begins to wrestle back some control and lessen the fear. The trick to overcoming fear is regaining a sense of being in control.
Help Kids Avoid Avoidance
One of the best things that you can do for your kids — especially for teens who tend to be incredibly self-conscious — is to show them that avoidance of anxiety-producing situations is self-sabotage. The problem with giving in to our natural tendency to avoid the new and the scary is that habituation (growth) never happens. Every time that we avoid what we are afraid of, we allow anxiety to win, and we fail to habituate ourselves to what scares us. In fact, when we avoid something, the fear grows stronger. We get the feel-good reward of avoiding the fear itself, and our brain says, See! Avoiding the fear was the better choice. Keep doing it, and I’m going to make the fear more intense so you listen! Make sure that you don’t let your kids avoid the fear-inducing experiences.
Show Kids That Courage Isn’t About Being Fearless
Show your kids that courage doesn’t mean that you are not afraid. Samuel Koehler was very afraid when he started running Spartan races, but he used those feelings as fuel. We need to teach our kids to overcome their fears by doing, not by waiting until they are no longer afraid.
For example, if your child is afraid of entering a competition, don’t wait until the fear is gone to sign them up. Sign them up anyway. Encourage them to move toward the fear, not away from it. Then, when they participate, they have a resilience data point that gives them information about the truth of their fear — Was it really worth worrying about? — and about their capacity to handle the frightening situation. The data point will demonstrate that fear does not have to stop them, and that they have the strength to overcome obstacles. They will begin to internalize the thought, I can still do things even when I am afraid. Fear is just a feeling, and it doesn’t have power over me.
Many adults overparent because of their own fear of failure. They are terrified that they will screw up as parents and that their children won’t be happy, won’t do well in school, won’t make the team, won’t get into college, will live in the basement as an adult ... You get the picture.
Are you worried about any of those possible outcomes? It’s normal to have these concerns. After all, you want your kids to become healthy, happy, productive citizens. But it’s unhealthy — and unhelpful — to allow these common fears to get out of hand and grow into fear-based parenting.
Where does this fear come from? Dr. Lara Pence, Spartan's Chief Mind Doc and psychologist, says it’s typically three things.
“Normally, fear of failure as a parent is driven by three elements,” she says. “Your own difficult experiences as a child, the pressure for perfection, and your desire to ensure that your child avoids rejection. When you operate from fear, the danger is that your child can become the embodiment of your greatest worry. You end up projecting your own fears onto your children, which they then absorb and act out. They may ultimately operate from the same position of fear.”
Here’s how it works in real life: Remember that time that you got picked on in grade school for wearing unfashionable clothing? The experience was humiliating and had such an impact on you that you now excessively worry that your own child may be picked on if she is not careful with her style. You may try to keep your worry in check, but it seeps out as you shop diligently to ensure she has the coolest clothes, personally adjust her clothing each day, and plan out her accessories.
Over time, your child absorbs the unspoken message that if she’s not dressing “properly,” she won’t be liked by others or by you. So she, too, begins to operate from a position of fear, becoming equally obsessive about her wardrobe, wearing the latest trends, and working diligently to protect herself from social rejection. Bam. Your fear has become her fear.
Another source of fear may be your relationship with other local parents. Parents often fear the judgment of their friends, in-laws, teachers, coaches, and communities. There is constant pressure to keep up with what everyone else is doing. Dr. L hears this kind of thing all the time in her practice.
It sounds something like this: “Our daughter’s friend, Sarah, is on the traveling field hockey team. Her parents cart her all over the state to games. Our daughter only plays locally, and we have to work instead of going to her games. She is falling behind, and we are bad parents.” Parents like this may begin to think, "If I’m the perfect parent, I won’t be judged." They may believe that if their child has it all, they won’t be viewed as a failure.
Catch yourself when you allow your fears and insecurities to guide your parenting. Remember that when you give your children less, you give them a chance to rise to the occasion. When you acknowledge that the world is imperfect and that you have limitations — such as the inability to take them to field hockey every day because you work — you give your kids the opportunity to solve problems, adapt, and find other interests. You are a great and imperfect parent.