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How to Encourage Children to Try New Things

by

Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Illustration of a girl riding a unicycle on a tightrope

Many children feel uncertain or hesitant when faced with a new situation. Whether it’s trying a new sport or taking up a musical instrument, the unknown can be unnerving.

For some children, the fear of new situations can lead to behavioural inhibition (BI). This refers to “a predisposition to avoid unfamiliar events, objects or people [that is] characterised by a display of withdrawn and fearful behaviours, and increased vigilance in novel contexts.” A review published in the International Review of Psychiatry found that children who are behaviourally inhibited are at increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder (Lahat et al., 2011).

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Parents can take a few key steps to encourage their children to take part in new or challenging situations. They can gradually expose children to new events, gently encourage them to be less fearful and create opportunities for incremental independence.

Several studies confirm the important role parents play in their children’s willingness to try new things. One study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that behaviourally inhibited infants avoided new stimuli when their parents expressed anxiety about it (Aktar et al., 2013). Conversely, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that toddlers were more willing to try a new fruit if their parents tried it too (Blissett et al., 2016). 

Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien agrees that parents have the power to embolden their children to face new situations with confidence. Here are six of her top tips to help children try new or challenging situations.

1. Model failure

“Parents should model failure and give their children the freedom to fail to let them know that perfection isn’t expected when they try something new,” says Kimberley. “If you’re ten-pin bowling as a family and you haven’t knocked any pins down, make a big joke of it and say, ‘I’m just warming up!’ Laugh it off. Being able to cope with a setback is a great skill to teach your children.”

You can also share stories of failure from your past and tell your children how you overcame them. Whether you tell them about not making the soccer team when you were in primary school or losing your job as an adult, your tales of resilience will give them the courage to try their best even though they might fail.

2. Encourage effort

Kimberley points to a study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology that found that young athletes whose parents set performance goals (wanting them to outperform their peers) worried more than those whose parents expressed mastery goals (wanting them to perform to the best of their ability) (Kaye et al., 2014). 

“Encouraging effort is so important,” says Kimberley. “If you take the ten-pin bowling example, something as small as saying, ‘Well done for putting these silly shoes on – at least we’re trying and having fun!’ can go a long way.”

3. Take the pressure off

When parents focus solely on the end goal, children can feel intimidated.

“If you say, ‘If you do nippers, you could be a lifesaver one day and you might save someone’s life in the ocean!’, that big dream can be overwhelming for your child," Kimberley explains. "Take it small and praise their tiny steps in the right direction.”

Many parents find that their children are enthusiastic about a new activity at first only to become fearful after a few sessions.

“If your child suddenly feels worried about going to swimming lessons, transfer that same skill to a different location,” says Kimberley. “Go to a shallow rock pool or a heated pool and enjoy being in the water together in a relaxing setting. Make it a parent-child interaction rather than saying, ‘You have to go in’ and separating yourself from them when they’re feeling anxious. Try to be very nurturing to reduce their anxiety rather than treating it as a behavioural issue. Sometimes parents think it’s defiance and give consequences which tends to increase the anxiety and stress.”

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Flower in a Pot

4. Take ownership of the new environment

When your child is worried about participating in a new activity in an unknown environment, you can reduce their anxiety by increasing their curiosity.

“Try to drop by the venue a few times before your child starts the new activity,” says Kimberley. “Look around, use the bathrooms, try the facilities and have a laugh. Introduce an element of play so you can go home and tell the rest of the family how fun it was. By visiting the new environment, you’ll start to develop a sense of belonging. And by the time the activity starts, you’ll have ownership of the space and it’ll be exciting.”

5. Encourage a growth mindset

Growth mindset is a term coined by American psychologist Carol Dweck. It refers to the belief that you can develop your abilities through dedication and hard work rather than being born with a fixed amount of intelligence you can’t control.

“Encouraging children to have a growth mindset and be comfortable with failing a few times can be really beneficial,” says Kimberley. “I’ve developed a Growth Mindset Workbook that can help parents nurture these skills at home.”

6. Seek professional help

If your child’s behavioural inhibition is persistent and affecting their enjoyment of activities they previously loved, it might be time to seek help. Reach out to our team to discuss how we can help your family.


View article references

  • Lahat, A., Hong, M., & Fox, N.A. (2011). Behavioural inhibition: Is it a risk factor for anxiety?, International Review of Psychiatry, 23(3), 248-257. https://doi.org/10.3109/09540261.2011.590468
  • Aktar, E., Majdandžić, M., de Vente, W., and Bögels, S.M. (2013). The interplay between expressed parental anxiety and infant behavioural inhibition predicts infant avoidance in a social referencing paradigm. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(2), 144-156. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02601.x
  • Blissett, J., Bennett, C., Fogel, A., Harris, G., & Higgs, S. (2016). Parental modelling and prompting effects on acceptance of a novel fruit in 2–4-year-old children are dependent on children’s food responsiveness. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(3), 554-564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114515004651
  • Kaye, M.P., Frith, A., & Vosloo, J. (2015). Dyadic Anxiety in Youth Sport: The Relationship of Achievement Goals With Anxiety in Young Athletes and Their Parents. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 27(2), 171-185. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2014.970717

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