You hoped the lessons and classes would be fun, but instead, your child feels scared at extracurricular activities. Here’s how to help him cope.
You don’t get it. Your son is a champ with daycare drop offs and has no problem saying goodbye to you every morning. But in every extracurricular activity you’ve enrolled him in—soccer, swim class, gymnastics—he clings to you for dear life.
You want him to enjoy these activities, grow independent, and build his confidence. Instead, he’s getting discouraged, hysterical and unwilling to part from you with every activity you sign him up for.
You’ve been patient, no matter how frustrating it can be. It makes you wonder whether you did the right thing in signing him up.
When your child is scared at extracurricular activities
I’ve dealt with plenty of separation anxiety, worried when my kids didn’t take to lessons or social functions.
During one swimming class, my son sat in the sidelines for the entire hour, refusing to get in the water even though he’d already had a previous lesson. Another son ran after me when he saw me walking away from him during a chess class drop off.
And they’ve all had several cases of “mama-itis,” where they wanted me… and only me.
Feeling anxious around an extracurricular activity is normal for many kids. Regular caregivers don’t compare to the once-a-week teachers they’re still unsure of during these lessons.
And sometimes, the new environment contributes to their uncertainty. They might see other kids crying, or feel anxious when they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.
Finding a balance between comforting your child and knowing when to quit is key. You don’t want to shield him from every struggle and instead allow him to learn how to cope with it. But you also want these activities to be fun, not something he dreads or feels pressure from.
How can you help him take to these lessons, feel proud of himself for sticking it through, or know if or when to call it quits?
1. Set expectations
A new environment can feel overwhelming for your child. Setting expectations will help him feel better prepared and understand that this is all part of the plan.
For instance, before going to a swim class, you might say, “Today, we’ll put on your swim suit and drive to swim class. You’ll go in the water, and your teacher will help you and give you a paddle board. Other kids will also be swimming around you.”
Paint a picture of what he might expect, as well as when he’ll know the class will be over. He might know that class is done when the kids start lining up for final jumps in the pool.
Free download: Struggling with what exactly you should do when he throws a tantrum? Grab your copy of A Quick Guide to Handling Tantrums to help you figure out what to do when tantrums strike. Download it below—at no cost to you! You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“Thanks Nina for this honest email!!! I guess this is why I love your advice and your honesty of always sharing our totally human reactions that don’t always help.” -Noemi Hangyal
2. Highlight the benefits
With so much to dread and feel scared of, what benefits can you offer your child about this new extracurricular activity?
Perhaps he gets to wear a spiffy new soccer uniform, or has a chance to swim like Nemo. Maybe he develops his brain muscles in chess, or learn martial arts moves like his favorite television characters. Or maybe it’s being able to play outdoors in the field, or paint wonderful picture.
How might you tie in the activity with something he loves?
3. Stay calm
It’s easy to get frustrated and anxious yourself when your child is scared of extracurricular activities. After all, you’ve already paid for the class, and you’re in the public eye. You had hoped and even expected him to love it, or he’s the only one who’s visibly upset among all the other kids.
But the most important thing to do is to stay calm yourself.
Getting upset puts unfair pressure on him. He shouldn’t feel berated for his feelings, much less change them to satisfy your own. His own anxiety will be heightened when he sees yours. He’ll think, “Mom’s upset too. This really must be scary then!”
Instead, stay calm. Imagine the worst-case scenario and realize that this isn’t a big deal. Sit out a class if need be, and remember that every parent has experienced this at one point. You’re also modeling how to stay calm and collected, teaching him to stay calm despite his anxieties.
And hand him off to the teacher just as calmly and nonchalantly. Your confidence shows him that feeling scared at extracurricular activities isn’t necessary. You trust his teacher, the environment and everything else that’s taking place.
4. Reassure your child that you’re nearby
Extracurricular activities are an exercise in overcoming separation anxiety. This is one of the few times your child isn’t with you or a regular caregiver he’s used to. He’s also with unfamiliar kids that he might only see once or twice a week.
That’s why it’s important to reassure him that you’re still nearby. In the first few lessons, make yourself visible, like by sitting in the front. Stay in the same spot so he knows where to look for you should he need to feel reassured you’re still there.
Let him know, even before the class, that you’ll be watching him having fun not far away.
5. Know when to call it quits
Quitting an activity because of your child’s anxiety is never a good feeling. You don’t want him to think that he can quit when things get hard, or that you’re rewarding his behavior. You’ve also already paid for the class, and want him to reap the benefits of the activity.
But sometimes, quitting a class isn’t a failure on your part, especially when you’ve tried all you can and given it a shot.
How do you know when it’s time? Give it a few tries and even let him in on your plan. “Let’s at least try this for one month and see how it goes from there.” Or “We already paid for eight weeks of the class. Let’s finish this up, and then we’ll see if you want to keep going after then.”
That way, she can stay committed for a finite period without feeling locked in forever.
But if you’ve given the class a shot and he’s still just as hysterical (or even gets worse), it’s likely time to ditch the class. Not every child loves particular extracurricular activities. There’s nothing wrong with yours if he doesn’t love cooking class or basketball.
The intention was good, but if the classes are causing more stress, it’s just as fine to let it go and try another time, or with another activity. In fact, try to tie in something that he is interested in. He may not like swimming or soccer, but loves singing and tinkering with Lego.
Extracurricular activities are supposed to be fun and enriching, so it’s difficult when your child doesn’t enjoy them. Thankfully, you can ease his anxieties and fears in many ways.
Start by setting expectations, from what will happen during the class to everything leading up to it. Highlight the benefits he gets from going to the class. Stay calm during the entire ordeal, especially when you hand him off to the teacher.
Reassure him that you’re nearby, staying in the same visible spot so he knows where to find you. And lastly, give him a set time to give the class a try. If, after that period, he’s still just as scared and anxious, then consider dropping the class and finding other options.
No more clinging onto you for dear life, friend. Now you and your child can enjoy extracurricular activities the way you imagined.
Get more tips:
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab your copy of the quick guide to help you figure out what to do when tantrums strike. Download it below—at no cost to you: