Karate Class: Helping Children Overcome Anxiety

mehealth & fitnessparentingages and stages

Anxiety—What we thought was horrible stage fright when our now 10-year-old son was in pre-school, turned into full blown anxiety when he hit 1st grade.

We thought he was nervous to be in unfamiliar environments—"slow to warm" as the books proclaimed. But, he'd start commenting about how everyone was watching him. When people laughed, he was convinced they were laughing at him. Arriving late was a death curse. If he didn't know people, that was worse. And just the anticipation alone would about give him a panic attack.

Once familiar with the environment and after forming some relationships, he'd always do fine. But get him on a stage or put him in unfamiliar territory and you've got one scared boy on your hands. It started affecting him, his friendships, his opportunities, and after a few years, his life. He became very unhappy. And we, as parents, were sad and scared for him.

We started allowing him to skip things like performances, wanting to keep him safe. But pretty soon, I could see his confidence waning and he was noticing his own fears and was frustrated with himself and his limited abilities to feel comfortable in certain situations.

In addition to getting professional advice, we signed him up for a karate class. We needed to give him an opportunity to excel at something outside of school and heard karate was great for helping kids learn to focus.

The first few times were horrible. He ran out of the room mid class embarrassed that he wasn't good enough. One time, he got there late, didn't realize his class had ended, waved goodbye to us, and then, too embarrassed to ask for help and not wanting to be noticed, walked outside and stood in the rain for 30 minutes. Finally, he went back inside and asked to use the phone and called us to come and pick him up.

But then, he starting excelling at karate. He got excited about his progress and things changed. He started practicing every day at home, he didn't want to miss one class, he memorized the schedule, and he was disciplined and diligent in his efforts. He had a lot of natural skill and his commitment and practicing made up for any skills he lacked. We shouldn't have been surprised then when he told us he wanted to enter the local tournament.

Imagining all the people, noise, and potential loss, we almost told him no. We could envision him running out right in the middle and getting further frustrated with his situation. But this was one of those moments where you have to focus on the real reason you are a parent—not to keep your kids from potentially failing and experiencing hurt, but to give them opportunities for growth. Going to the tournament was an opportunity he had chosen and worked for and who were we to stand in his way?

So we went. I could hardly breathe when we walked in and saw wall to wall people. Every square inch of the studio was lined with parents and excited kids in their karate uniforms. Right upon walking in the door a mom, in her nicest voice, said: "His belt isn't done right." Upon hearing those words, my son turned and walked right back out the door. I'm not gonna lie. I wanted to walk back in and punch her, bless her sweet little helpful soul! But, I walked outside and talked my son into going back in and getting the lay of the land and not worrying about his uniform yet. This took several minutes.

We finally walked in the back and I found an instructor who helped him with everything he needed. Some other kids, noticing he needed help, came up and offered to assist him. I wanted to cry and hug these kids. They had no idea what a difference they were making.

Then the tournament started and the anxiety set in—his and mine (and I don't even have anxiety!). I suffered as a parent as I watched my son vacillate between not participating and participating and I prayed his time would hurry and arrive so he wouldn't have to think about it anymore. And sure enough, it did. And that's when the real panic in him started.

Half way into the warm up exercises, he ran off. Fortunately, I stopped him and calmed him down enough to get him to reconsider. I reminded him how hard he had practiced, how it wasn't important to win but just to finish, and reassured him that parents were there to watch their own kids and that all eyes really weren't on him. He started doing a bit of self talk quietly and walked back out, competed, and won first place. I started crying.

In that moment, I realized that our greatest triumphs come from our most difficult opportunities. We all have challenges we have to overcome. For some kids it may be determination. For others it may be skill. And for my son, it is anxiety.

After the tournament, I asked him what it was that helped him get back out on the mat when he had wanted to walk away. He said he just kept telling himself: "You can do this! You can do this!"

I think we all need to remind ourselves that we "can do this" every now and then!

How do you help your children not shy away from difficult challenges in their lives? What tips do you have for kids suffering from anxiety? What opportunities help kids grow in confidence?

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An active part of the Mom It Forward team, Jyl primarily writes about parenting, social good, and all things travel related. In a past life, Jyl was an award-winning copywriter and designer of corporate training programs for Fortune 100 companies. Offline, Jyl is married to @TroyPattee; a mom to two teen boys and a beagle named #Hashtag; loves large amounts of cheese, dancing, and traveling; and lives in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Topping her bucket list is the goal to visit 50 countries by the time she's 50.


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