How to help kids overcome their holiday fears

‘I don’t want to do it.” How often do we hear that from kids? Especially on holidays.

It can be anything from snorkelling to skiing, bushwalking to bungee jumping. (Admittedly, the latter is understandable.)

Usually, a few encouraging words is all it takes. But sometimes, children develop irrational fears about holiday activities.

“Familiar surroundings and routines at home help to prevent anxiety,” according to clinical psychologist, and mother of four, Sally-Anne McCormack.

“When they are thrown into unfamiliar situations, they lose security. While some may find it exhilarating, others may find it terrifying!”

On a recent trip, our daughter, Grace – who’s the first to throw herself into anything adventurous – became frightened of, well, everything. It might have something to do with what happened on the first day.

At a trail-riding centre, I remember saying: “Now stop crying and get on that horse. He’s a gentle beast; nothing bad will happen.”

You guessed it. The horse threw her off.

As an adult, it’s easy to say, “Well, just get back on that horse.”

And she did.

But kids find it difficult to express complex fears.

“A child may not have the vocabulary to distinguish between ‘nervous’, ‘terrified’ and ‘fearful’,” McCormack says.

“All they may say is that they feel sick.”

But what about going overseas, where there are many different experiences?

“Focusing on one or two things that make your kid excited eases their fears by taking away the idea of a big, daunting trip,” says Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel.

“Try to incorporate some aspects of the trip into your lives before you go – eat some of the local food, or watch a movie about the country you’ll be visiting.”

Sometimes, we forget that children don’t have the same frame of reference as we do.

For example, if we’re about to go skiing for the first time, we can remember what it was like to rollerblade or skateboard, as a comparable experience.

Manchester suggests using analogy.

“So, if your child is scared of horseback riding, tell them it’s like riding a bike for the first time – it seems scary at first, but ultimately it’s a lot of fun.” (Except in Grace’s case!)

Distraction is also a powerful tool.

For kids who are afraid of flying, Qantas recommends keeping them entertained with books, toys or games during takeoff and landing.

My final question to our wise psychologist was this: Should you ever force your kids to do something they don’t want to do?

“Encourage your child,” she recommends.

“Prepare them prior to the activity. Do not force them, though. If worry is the reason that they are not participating in an activity, then you do not want to traumatise them.”

She says reassurance and praise are vital.

Which is where we went wrong with Grace. Instead of understanding that her horse-riding fears were being replicated in every other holiday adventure, we forged ahead.

Now might be the time to stop, sit back and reassess, instead of treating our kids’ fears as less serious than our own.

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