How to Handle A Setback Due to Fear or Anxiety
Then one day, he protested about getting in. The next lesson he protested getting in and cried when I asked him to do some swimming. He replied that he only wanted to stay on the steps and play games. Then he no longer wanted to put his face in. Little by little, each skill, each activity became an opportunity for him to protest and his adamancy won out over my reasoning.
I puzzled over the change and spent a fair amount of time thinking of ways to approach the lessons differently, wondering all the while what triggered his setback.
This setback phase is one of the most common and frustrating components of a young child’s character. One day they are moving ahead in leaps and bounds and then suddenly they begin to protest, to regress, to throw tantrums and insist they can’t do it, they’re scared, they hate it, etc…
As a parent and an educator I wrestle with when to forge ahead and when to give in. Clearly in every case it is a power struggle, but I think it is important to identify what the struggle is about. In the case of the young boy mentioned above, it turned out that his mother was ill and would be hospitalized for an extended period of time. Even though the little boy didn’t fully understand what was going on, he knew his mom was sick and that she would be away from him for a while. Once I found out what was going on, I suggested that we curtail the lessons for a bit and resume once his mom was back at home.
After a few months we started up again and it was business (and fun) as usual.
I generally tell parents, if there is a transition happening that will take the child from one stage to another and they are in the process of resisting that transition, continue with life and lessons as normal, with the possible exception of trying to push harder. I will often just tell children that for a few days they can “choose all the games” and “all the types of swims that are their favorite”. Usually just providing them with an opportunity to maintain control over the situation relaxes them and they can move through the struggle much easier.
If however, the situation is more intense and immediate, such as an ill parent, a sudden change in the household, etc. it might not be a bad idea to take a break and allow the child more time to just be and play without too much structure before resuming lessons.
Lastly, if your child is protesting just to see how far they can push (and we all know when that is, even if we don’t want to admit it), don’t give in and make sure they know that swimming especially is important for many reasons – and do state what those reasons are – and that if they want to do something they love such as go to the beach, play in the pool with their siblings or friends, etc. then they absolutely need to do their lessons.
Then when they comply, reward them for it (I generally give my kids rewards with something I would have given them anyway – ice cream, going to a movie, a particular book or something, even getting to choose what they want for dinner is good) and let them know you are so proud of them for such great work.
Remember children are most fearful and anxious when they feel that their parent is not in charge.