Some kids can’t wait to run off their energy in physical education classes, but for others, PE is the most dreaded time of the school day. They may be embarrassed about their lack of athletic ability or self-conscious about their weight and/or changing body.
Fear of PE can keep kids from enjoying school and embracing a healthy lifestyle.
Paul Donahue, a psychologist based in Scarsdale, N.Y., encourages parents to help their self-conscious child cope with PE while giving the child opportunities to explore other types of exercise.
“PE is just one place where kids get their physical activity,” says Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear. “Kids need to be moving when they’re at home, too.”
Here are nine ideas from Donahue for helping your child cope with PE anxiety:
1. Talk to the PE teacher. Brainstorm solutions, such as including noncompetitive activities and games that don’t single out anyone. The teacher can also divide kids into groups to allow children to compete against others with similar skills. “Most gym teachers are sensitive to these issues,” Donahue says, adding that with some team sports, the teacher can place your child where she’ll be inconspicuous.
2. Stay ahead of the curveball. Find out which sports your child will be expected to play. Make time for some informal practice ahead of time. You can kick the soccer ball around the backyard, shoot baskets in the driveway, or work on volleyball skills, such as how to serve.
3. Show your child how you laugh at yourself. Playing with your child is a great time to demonstrate how to make light of your athletic weaknesses. Keep the games lighthearted and fun.
4. Help your child understand that perception doesn’t always match reality. Kids’ fears are based on how they perceive a situation, Donahue says. Your child may think everyone is laughing at him when, in reality, no one pays attention to how well other students play softball. If your child is a perfectionist, remind her that not everyone is wired that way and that most kids are just playing to have fun.
5. Teach your child relaxation techniques. Children with all types of anxiety can benefit from slowing down and taking deep breaths. By helping your child learn to cope with this anxiety, you’ll teach him a skill he can apply to other situations that make him tense and anxious.
6. Don’t pressure your child to love sports. Kids whose parents are gifted athletes may feel intense pressure to follow in their agile footsteps. Make sure you’re not unintentionally contributing to your child’s anxiety by pushing him to excel in the same areas where you excelled.
7. Encourage your child to find activities for life. There are many ways to stay fit, not just team sports. Give your child the opportunity to try out different activities, from running to cycling to martial arts to dance. Some kids may like working out at the gym. And walking on a treadmill while listening to music can be a great way to reflect on the day while getting exercise.
8. Model healthy habits. If you find exercise a chore, you’ll send that message to your child. Show her that you make fitness a priority and that feeling great is the payoff, not winning a game or being the best.
9. Make sure your child has time to play. Your child’s PE anxiety might be exacerbated by fatigue, burnout, and a schedule packed with too many activities. Make sure your child has down time and opportunities for unstructured free play. A happy, relaxed child is more likely to appreciate PE for what it is supposed to be—a time to have fun with friends while getting fit.
It’s hard to watch your child suffer. But, Donahue says, learning to overcome uncomfortable situations is what makes kids resilient. By teaching your child to advocate for herself and find solutions to her problems, you’ll help her do more than push through PE anxiety. You’ll prepare her for the many social challenges she’ll encounter in her life.