Q: My 5-year-old begged me to sign him up for soccer, but he broke into tears as we left for practice across the street. I told him, “Let’s just go and watch,” but he remained weepy and clingy, saying he was scared. After 40 minutes of watching other kids while he complained about being there, we left. He plays well and makes friends at school, but this has happened for every extracurricular activity we’ve tried. I’m feeling frustrated and unsure how to respond.
That sounds like a very difficult and upsetting situation for both of you!
The good news is that you’ve recognized a pattern: your son gets scared when he enters new activities. It’s always easier to make a plan when we have an idea of what to expect. Your idea of having him watch first before trying seems like it will be helpful. The problem was probably he was already too worked up to embrace your very sensible suggestion! It’s a good sign that he plays well with friends at school.
You have a choice now: You can just shelve the idea of extracurricular activities for 3-6 months and try again when he matures a bit and has more experience with peers at school, or you can try again on the next day of this activity.
If you decide to try again with this activity, do some prep work, first. At a neutral time, acknowledge that he felt scared at the first soccer practice–probably because he wasn’t sure what to expect or what to do. Then have him do a “dry run” of soccer practice so he can feel more familiar with what will happen at the next session.
Depending on how anxious he is, this might involve lining up stuffed animals to play soccer, going in your backyard and practicing with you being the soccer instructor and him being the student and/or vice versa, or even going across the street when no one is there to have a pretend soccer class.
Well before the next class, tell him you and he are just going to watch the next class. Tell him exactly where you and he will sit/stand to watch. Since the class is so close, it could even be from your yard! Insist that he will definitely not do any playing, only watching at the next session. If he wants to play, it will have to wait until the following session. We want to shift things so he’s pulling rather than you pushing. Ask him what he needs to do while he’s watching (i.e., watch quietly without screaming, crying, or carrying on because that disrupts the class.) If he wants only to watch every session for the whole season, that’s fine.
Right now, he’s at a place where just calmly watching an activity is progress. With enough prep and practice, I bet he can do that. Afterwards, praise him for watching calmly. Right now, for him, that takes courage. Tell him, “Pretty soon you’ll be ready to join the other kids playing,” but insist that there’s no rush. He’ll get there.