March 10, 2014 12:22 PM   Subscribe

My soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter is pretty timid, physically. It's nothing crippling or even worrisome, but still…c'mon kid, geez, just jump! You'll be fine!

She loves swings, but when it comes to anything she's got to climb or slide down, she doesn't have the nerve for it! No leaping from curbs. Even the hanging bridges between playground structures freak her out! The way she acts you'd think she'd suffered some gruesome schoolyard injury, but nope.

I'm totally okay with assuming she'll grow out of this, or not. But her buddies are dashing about, risking life and limb hanging off of stupid things, and in general I'd like to see her more confident in her physical abilities. She's not a clumsy person.

What did your mom and dad do to get you over this? What worked for your niece or nephew? Part of me wants to bump her off something about 4 feet tall just to show her that taking a fall ain't so bad, but of course I never would.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I was your daughter. I pretty much stayed this way until I was a preteen, and then I just became a bookish indoorsy type kid who was more cerebral and less physical.

I will say that some of this stuff got better for me as I physically grew and developed a little more coordination and bodily confidence. I have very strong memories of being preschool age (maybe 3-6?) and feeling physically insecure just about all the time because I was too little, not strong enough, didn't know what to do with my body, and just being constantly uncomfortable, in pain, or liable to have sudden scary accidents because of this. It's a pretty terrifying feeling.

I don't think you should necessarily enable her fears, but seriously if she doesn't want to go on the slide, don't make her go on the slide. She doesn't have to like playground equipment.

Would you like it if someone bigger and more powerful was constantly making you do stuff that freaked you out?

Bumping her off a 4-foot drop is a terrible idea. I mean is she even 4 feet tall? How would you like it if someone pushed you off a 6 or 7 foot drop?

Keep in mind, too, that three is on the bleeding edge of pretty much any physical activity related play. She is just a few months out of board books, sippy cups, and potty training. Give her time to grow and get more comfortable with her surroundings.
posted by Sara C. at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2014 [9 favorites]

I was this child - terrified to jump off a tiny curb, scared of the climbing rope, too nervous to even go down the big slide.

Nothing made me get over it but time. In fact, the more my mom egged me to "just try! you'll be fine!", the worse my anxiety got.

For me, part of it was a fear of being hurt, but the larger part was a fear of falling and being embarrassed - not sure if that's part of it for her, but perhaps gently encouraging her to try when there is no one but you two around might help.

(Note - both of my children went in the opposite direction, and the number of head wounds, emergency room visits and general blood and screaming that comes with having kids that have *no* fear is not a lot of fun either.)
posted by dotgirl at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

She sounds so similar to my daughter. She's three and a half now, and has always been extremely cautious. She didn't walk until she was nearly 16 months old, and even as a toddler we could set her on the kitchen counter while we cooked dinner, as there was no chance of her trying to climb or jump down on her own.

Anyway, we enrolled her in preschool gymnastics classes about 6 months ago, and I think it's been really good for her. She's definitely not the most physically adept kid there (far from it), but she enjoys it (particularly the bouncing on trampolines), and it's not at all competitive for kids her age, so she's able to participate at her own pace. Her hour-long class consists of obstacle courses, trampoline, swinging on bars, and balance beams. There is a huge foam pit for the kids to jump or swing into, and it took my daughter 4-5 months to work up the nerve to jump without assistance, but she did get there. Might be worth trying if there are any decent gymnastics facilities near you.
posted by hovizette at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

If your child is interested, something like gymnastics might help, or at least give her more confidence in her ability to do things. I was sometimes like this as a child, and things like jumping on trampolines and learning floor exercises made me feel like I had more control over falling, etc.

My daughter was like this, too. She latched onto swim lessons when she was about five, and I realised that she's a total daredevil in the water--willing to do basically anything. High dives, super twisty-fast slides, giant ocean waves, whatever. She's there. She's still very cautious when she's not in water, but it was a helpful reminder to me that everyone has different physical comfort zones. YMMV.
posted by MeghanC at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2014

Response by poster: NOTE: I checked out pricing for tumbling classes, What I've seen so far is way out of our budget, although I'm open to ideas.

And while I'm here, let me just add that I truly don't press or push the issue with her. I just want her to maximize her crazy fun abilities and feel like a big girl. No big deal.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 12:36 PM on March 10, 2014

The way she acts you'd think she'd suffered some gruesome schoolyard injury, but nope.

Please try not to be dismissive. Even if she hasn't gone through this, that doesn't mean she didn't observe another child get hurt on the playground (or even on TV), and/or hasn't had a bad dream about it. At that age, even experiencing something frightening second-hand can morph into fear or timidity, because they're not always able to distinguish between something that literally happened to them and the fear of something happening to them. (The fear of being embarrassed is also a good thing to consider.)

I agree that seeing if something like preschool gymnastics might be a positive way for her to work on this. But at the same time, it may be that she's just a naturally physically cautious kid. She might grow out of it, or she might always have a tendency that way.
posted by scody at 12:36 PM on March 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yep, gymnastics. Good gymnastics teachers deal with this all the time, and they're very good at moving scaredypantses from walking to balancing to hopping to jumping to flying all over the place.

I checked out pricing for tumbling classes, What I've seen so far is way out of our budget, although I'm open to ideas.

Have you checked your local Y[M|W]CA or municipal rec center?
posted by Etrigan at 12:39 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was me. How's her depth perception? If she has poor binocular vision, it could be that she just literally cannot tell how far away the ground is from the curb. Get her vision checked.

I still have nightmares about hanging bridges.
posted by matildaben at 12:42 PM on March 10, 2014 [18 favorites]

My youngest child and son was and still is scared of heights. Sounds a little bit like your daughter. He has slowly adjusted to the heights thing, even climbed a ladder last year at the age of 16, but he is fearless in other ways. He plays football. He rode his bike across the country last summer.

I would only address it if it appears to be a problem for her. If her friends are teasing her or not letting her participate. Otherwise, she will either grow out of it, or adapt.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:54 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My son was a very timid toddler. He played varsity soccer in high school, hikes, climbs and is a physically active, fearless adult. At three it's not unusual to be timid and slow to try stuff. I'd be gently encouraging and give her reassurance when she wants to back off trying stuff. It'll come.
posted by leslies at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get her vision checked with someone who is a member of COVD. I had four eye docs say the kid is fine or needs glasses when it was neither. The kid's visual accuity was severely nerfed and vision therapy helped tremendously, the kid is now learning to trust what they see and their senses of balance. Yes, they can test her that young, a well trained doc can work with them that young and determine if there is something going on that would affect how she sees that then translates into how she encounters the world and fears what her brain can't yet tell her is okay or not.
posted by tilde at 1:11 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, don't bump her off a four-foot drop. Start with a one-foot drop and work your way up.

Yes, all the comments above are accurate and helpful, but it's also true that there's a benefit in success: She needs to learn that falling is OK. Is she only scared of falling, or does she also overreact to having fallen? If only the former, then you're in a better spot. Do make sure that you (and other caregivers) are not overreacting to small tumbles.

She's only three, so don't worry or push her now, but as she gets older, there will be more opportunities to gradually and respectfully teach her that things are not as dangerous as she might find them.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:11 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, this was me too. I had very specific comfort zones: Water, after the first time I ever actually went off any kind of diving board, was always perfectly comfortable for me. I have an excellent sense of balance, have never been afraid of heights as long as I'm holding onto something, etc, but I always loathed gymnastics class because the coach only ever let me do things I was scared of. One thing that really benefitted me was taking Judo. Learning to fall properly was great, and I got to wrestle - something I was never allowed to do at home because the neighbor kids' parents thought we were going to pull our arms out of our sockets or something.

Basically, I agree with folks above who say that the more you try to cajole a kid into doing something they're afraid of, the more anxious they'll become about it. I know for me, I wanted to make my mom and dad proud, which made me nervous, which amplified my fear, which made me worried about embarrassing myself, which made me even more nervous, and on and on.

Have you looked into some basic positive reinforcement methods? The term is typically used in animal training, and so a lot of people have instinctively negative reactions to applying it to people, but the basic principles work in all interactions. Using positive reinforcement to overcome fear basically works like this: find out what she's scared of, and introduce a teeny tiny version of that thing that she's totally okay with. Gradually work up from there. The goal isn't to get her out of her comfort zone - it's to increase the "risk" slowly enough, paired with whatever reward is motivating for her, that she doesn't even notice she's passed the edge of what used to be her comfort zone.

I'm not sure if I've explained that properly, but that's my best shot - additional Googling may help more.
posted by Urban Winter at 1:23 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I still hate heights, and considered myself a pretty timid kid. I really didn't like the idea of getting hurt. But I did swimming and loved making "sandpies" and eventually, roller coasters.

For me, I big reason for why I was such a scaredy-cat as a kid is that I constantly thought about everything. I'd get really excited, then after that, the fear would sink it and I'd second-guess myself and start freaking out about the worst-case scenarios. Then I'd probably chicken out or put up a fit until people left me alone.

I learned how to conquer it (somewhat) once people just stopped trying to help me get over my fears. When people tried to help me -- or push me, I'd just get more and more frustrated, and possibly upset. Once, when I was young, I really wanted bunk beds. Until I climbed up to the top bunk of the one at the furniture and realized that I really, really, could not get myself down, because it was kind of terrifying from up there.

If I was left to my own devices, I'd usually come up with a workaround if I decided I wanted to do something badly enough. I closed my eyes on rollercoasters so the heights would bother me me less. I took a deep breath and sort of ungracefully made my way off the diving board eventually.

The thing is to probably just let her go at her own pace. She may suddenly become gung-ho about the slide, but remain terrified of the monkey bars. That's really okay! Some things are going to appeal to her and some things won't. Just encourage her, while sometimes remembering to back off and let her acquaint herself with things at her own pace.

And hey, on the bright side, my cautious nature meant that I went 27 whole years before I broke my first bone! (My brother, on the other hand... was in the ER on an every-other-year basis until he was about 12.)
posted by PearlRose at 1:23 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was me. How's her depth perception? If she has poor binocular vision, it could be that she just literally cannot tell how far away the ground is from the curb. Get her vision checked.

Me too! I have a lazy eye and although I went through all the patching, and eye exercises and all of that, I don't have binocular vision.

Heights, bridges, tunnels all freak me right the fuck out. I take anxiety meds for it and it helps a lot.

Sports were a nightmare because of THINGS FLYING AT ME!

What I really loved was ice skating and subsequently, hockey. Hockey is surprisingly 2-d.

So get her vision checked (it helps if you call the big lens thing a 'hooty-owl').

If that's cool, she may grow into it, once she sees other kids having fun, or she may never grow into it. And that's okay.

Keep trying different activities, she may just need to find the one that works for her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:31 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

If it's any consolation, this kind of hesitation is frequently tied to higher level mental processing skills (some would call that intelligence, but I think we all know at this point that intelligence comes in many flavours).

I know you feel like you're not judging or pushing, but even statements like "feel like a big girl" and "crazy fun abilities" are super subjective, and I hope that if you've been saying those things directly that you can see justification here for pulling back on that.

Kids are sometimes this way independent of any direct or observed experience, to the degree that it can just be instinctive, with no cogitation between requested outcome and desire to achieve it. Even if they really want to do it themselves, the innate resistance is more powerful than their desire to perform.

In any case, one fairly successful "cure" for this situation is to back off completely and be super casual about it. No coaching, no prompting, no comparisons to other kids and how much "fun" they're having. Go to places where the activity you desire is occurring, model it yourself, watch shows and read books where it happens without it being a big deal, tell stories about times you were a little bitty kid and did those things for the first time without adding a moral or summary...but leave it at that. If she decides to try something, be excited for her and compliment her acumen, but don't criticize how she did it or act like she passed a test for your approval.

My kid is naturally heights-phobic (I am, too), and had some resistance to any play that could lead to falling. The above approach has worked to bring her to at least an interested stage, where she'll try things until the phobia kicks in (and sometimes she gets to do the thing she was interested in with no phobic reaction). She was also not in the group of kids jumping or tumbling early - as I explained to her when she noticed I was being supportive of one of her friends trying handstands, she has different strengths, because that's how her brain and body are, and when she's ready to try those other things, she'll figure out how to do it the way that works for her. I also emphasise that some people learn differently for various things they want to do, and a way to learn that works for a friend might not work for her; also, we talk a lot about how some things come easy but other things need practice. Her favourite book when we first started challenging her notions of can/can't was "Try Again Sally Jane".

I don't know what kind of resources you have, obviously, but I know that having the means to test oneself physically at home where it's always out and available to investigate is more likely to encourage that kind of play (but not guaranteed). There are awesome balance, jumping, and climbing toys available nowadays that can normalize these activities over time. They're not cheap, but most last for years. E.g.: jumping, balancing, agility and balance. And, of course, having a mat at home can be a great encourager of taking the risk to tumble.
posted by batmonkey at 1:32 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe she's scared that if she falls, you won't catch her?

If you want her to jump off something, maybe you should be at the bottom with your arms outstretched.

She probably won't always need that reassurance, but right now she's only three.
posted by rue72 at 1:32 PM on March 10, 2014

I'm not suggesting that this is your daughter but I will give my experience in case it helps. My daughter has a sensory processing disorder so as a little kid, she found all of those activities really scary. So many kids are just timid, but my daughter saw an OT for years and I can tell you what kinds of things they did with her in OT in case you are wanting some home activities. They're all really fun and work on your sense of balance etc:
Low balance beams--great if you can make them yourself but otherwise they make portable ones that you can take apart and space out so she can practice jumping from log to log. I hear you can also split a pool noodle lengthwise and make your own (but I haven't done this)
Riverstones--Here's a set that is expensive but they're pretty great for building confidence (and there are so many games you can play with these for many years) You could also DIY something instead.
Balance board
Stepping stones

hope this helps!
posted by biscuits at 1:52 PM on March 10, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all for the insight so far, especially for the reminder that we really need to get her eyes checked. Her mom's eyesight is pretty bad and mine's not great. I've suspected that this might be part of the deal.

I absolutely never give her any guff about her reluctance to do this sort of thing. 15 seconds of "you can do it!" and if she still doesn't want to, no problem, let's go play house. If she never climbs a rope ladder in her life it's fine by me.

I do feel, however, that feeling secure in one's physical abilities is a powerful kind of confidence, so if there's anything I can do to support that in her, I do want to give it a try. But I don't perceive this timidity as any kind of a defect.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 1:55 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had that flavour of toddler. I did nothing and she sorted it out on her own. A neighbour boy taught her how to jump one afternoon and she got it, just like that. When she was 5 she asked for the training wheels off her bike, wobbled a bit, and that was it; she rides a bike.

The hesitation was/is just a built-in part of the personality here. The kid didn't walk until 15mo, after spending months and months using walkers or holding onto the furniture. But when she did walk, that was it; she walked, and we skipped the wobbly toddling phase. Everything has been like that: no, no, no, and then one afternoon it's done and done perfectly. My feeling is that this is more confidence-building than anything I could've engineered myself.

When she was 4 we got a tandem kayak and she was scared to go in it, even though she was happy to swim alongside it. Odd! I got her a kiddie sit-on-top kayak and she did great with it, and in not too long a time decided it was fine to go in the big boat. I don't have a plethora of examples for that but it seemed like a much, much happier thing to be able to have a modified option rather than 'do this or miss out' or cajoling or bribing or whatever. Swimming lessons were not well received but a wrap-around floatie thing made her almost too confident, and then the floatie was a thing of the past thanks to that confidence. All physical skills came with time or a thing to bridge you to the next level; there wasn't anything I (or a swim instructor) could do to hasten it along.
posted by kmennie at 2:10 PM on March 10, 2014

Dance classes were great for me. I started about age 3. I'm still an uncoordinated oaf, but not nearly what I would have been without them (16 years).

I think it's an interesting way to learn to control your body. When I was little, I did mostly tap, but had ballet once a month (until 7 when I was old enough to start weekly ballet classes) and some tumbling. Maybe I'm biased because I had such an awesome teacher. She was super energetic and encouraging.
posted by kathrynm at 2:12 PM on March 10, 2014

I think a check of her vision is a great idea. I've been nearsighted most of my life and every time I got new glasses, I had to start all over again learning how far to step down stairs or a curb. If I were only three years old I would find screwed-up depth perception very frightening.
posted by aryma at 2:17 PM on March 10, 2014

I have horrible depth perception and that was the first thing I thought of. I was not a cautious child and have numerous scars to prove it. I ran into a lot of things! Getting contacts in my late 20s was quite the revelation.
posted by fshgrl at 3:09 PM on March 10, 2014

Anything that gives her confidence in her body: gymnastics and dance as others have mentioned, maybe even yoga if there's a class for kids that young. But the one exercise class that she really needs the most- that all little kids need the most- is swimming. See if your local Y has special classes for toddlers. If you can't afford it it's worth asking grandparents if they can help out. My 4 yr old grand-daughter's grandpa paid for her lessons and took her every week.
posted by mareli at 3:22 PM on March 10, 2014

As someone who thought nothing of jumping off the high-dive as a toddler, but viewed the Monkey Bars with a certain level of distrust (thanks to several small injuries), I'd say let her explore some pool activities.
posted by stubbehtail at 4:01 PM on March 10, 2014

I agree that dance or tumbling or something like that might help her get more confident. If the private gyms and dance schools are too pricey, maybe there is something at your local rec center? My school district used to have affordable community ed classes of all types for all sorts of ages, including kids.
posted by radioamy at 4:43 PM on March 10, 2014

When I interact with our two year old (who is also going through a scaredy-cat stage, although she inexplicably acts fearlessly sometimes), I find it helpful to remember how big the world looks relative to their size. I'm over twice as tall as she is, so I imagine shrinking down to her size and having everything in the world over twice as big, including heights and the weight of things and the apparent speed at which everything is coming at me. I'm actually pretty shocked that more kids aren't freaking the heck out at how indomitable the world seems.

Part of what I do to help is I have some times where I play with her in ways that slightly push the boundaries of concern in an age appropriate way and where she can handle it. Tickling, jumping, swinging around. Not even close to a way that would be perceived as inappropriate, but right at the edge such that it's actually fun to take that little extra step or jump while holding on to dad's hand. I see this an issue of personal growth for her that I can help with, in that she can learn to conquer the things that worry her little by little, where she can discover that she is actually a big person in a little body. I love playing that role for her, truth be told.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:59 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Presuming costs of classes are prohibitive for you, there are still ways you can work with this.

-Any high school cheerleaders in town? Many high school cheerleaders also have gymnastic experience and might be more affordable than enrolling in a class. Same for high school dancers.

-Try lots of different activities: sledding, rolling down hills, going down a small playground slide together, hopscotch, and hula hoops. Hikes can be good because sometimes there are short roots and tree stumps that children can jump from.

-Make it a game. Integrate one of the challenges into a game of make believe. Fold a very tiny bit of the more challenging activities into exciting activities that are fun to do.

-High fives and lots of praise
posted by donut_princess at 6:02 PM on March 10, 2014

When I was around three I was terrified of swimming. I don't really remember it, but there are photos of me wailing poolside. Somehow my dad convinced me to go in the water, and today I'm basically Aqua Girl.

When it came to gymnastics, I was scared of anything where I had to "land" including cartwheels. Unlike my dad, my mom decided I needed to be protected from as much unpleasantness and discomfort as possible, so gymnastics classes were dropped and sports teams were signed up for and cancelled, etc. I really, really, wish she made me try, or my that my dad stepped in because the lesson I took away was, you can't fail if you don't try, and just do stuff you like and that you're good at.

You sound like a lovely and caring parent (who obviously isn't going to throw your kid off the sidewalk!) who would take every precaution possible to ensure your child's safety so I encourage you to look for safe ways to let your child learn to fail and to be there when she does. I'm not suggesting you force her to do anything, just please encourage her to try. I wouldn't dismiss or minimize her fears, but you can acknowledge them without feeding into them. Eg, jumping off the curb is scary, but it's not inherently dangerous.

At the Y they have adorable swimming classes for babies and toddlers. In addition to learning how to float and stuff in the water, the parents will also get in the pool while the babies jump off the deck into their arms so maybe try something like that.

And maybe find a way to take the focus off the fear. For example, if she wanted to be a pirate she could take (casual, non-competitive) fencing classes, where she could play pirate and oh yeah pirates leap backwards and forwards with their sword! Or agility training with a dog, where she gets to play with a doggy and oh yeah let's make the dog jump over this flat object!

Finally, try to find out what she's actually afraid of. The physical pain of hurting herself? That hurt kids "go to the hospital?" Maybe she's afraid she'll need Bactine! When I was little I became afraid to turn on the water faucets because I heard about the "water gate bugs" so there could be something else entirely driving her fear. At the very least, try to find a way for her to make a positive association with her body and with physical activity. Maybe a gentle introduction to roller skating (the OG 4-wheel kind) or skateboarding, or even a game of tag!
posted by Room 641-A at 6:41 PM on March 10, 2014

Being cautious can be about being analytical. Something could go wrong and she knows it (I was this kid). Pretending that there is no potential problem (or, conversely, making the problem bigger than it is) is going to make her doubt herself. So, maybe she would benefit from something like martial arts for little kids.
posted by heyjude at 7:04 PM on March 10, 2014

We've get a kid like this and she just needs a lot of time and encouragement, and boundaries. And she just learns lessons really really well. So the 'I can't swim actually' lesson meant months of fear of the pool (exacerbated by the 'scream, yell, bully the children into swimming' style of other parents). The time the swing broke and she got concussion lead to months of not wanting to go too high. She's scared of drops and falling, for the most part, so if she's hanging off Daddy's neck, she's terrified to drop to her feet (about 50 cm straight drop) and will cling like a monkey. She's sprained both ankles (at different times) so I think there is residual fear about pain, even though the sprains were trampoline or unstable surface related.

We tend to deal with it by having a goal - so we'll say "today we're going to do two swims without a kickboard" and she might negotiate more or less, and that's what we do. Otherwise she can do what she wants. And we praise her for overcoming her fear - it doesn't matter how well she did it, or if she cried, but she overcame her fear and swam, or jumped, or held on tight.

That said, chances are she'll grow up like me. I don't like physical exertion, or pushing myself, or anything like that. It's taken a month or so for me to be comfortable at the gym because I'm terrified of blowing out my knee or shoulder (again). So I empathise, and we walk through the steps, but it's not a big deal in the scheme of things. She's not gonna be a daredevil athlete (unless it's car related) and that's okay.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:23 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd let her find her own physical joy.

I hated climbing as a kid, due to extreme clumsiness. Same with jump rope, swimming, and most sports. However, when I hit 5 and learned to ride a bike? You couldn't peel me off that thing. I also loved to hit a tennis ball against the garage door with a tennis racket. So, I was quite physical, but I glommed onto only a couple of specific activities as an outlet.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:55 PM on March 10, 2014

What does she say?

"Do you think it looks like fun, but you're worried you'll hurt yourself?" "Do you want to do it but at the last minute just go eek, scarey?" "Do you think you might look silly if you fall over the first time?" "Do you think you'll get really hurt?" "Are you just waiting until you feel comfortable?"

Then depending on her answers, see of you can come up with a plan together. Let's practice falling into some cushions and _all_ the soft toys. Let's try a small jump together when there's nobody else at the park. Let's try holding hands off the lowest kerb whilst playing all fall down.

Both my children had certain things at the park that they took a while to get around to that I knew they could do. But part of what they were doing was developing judgement.
posted by hawthorne at 6:03 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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