Overcoming Anxiety is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

Bicycling magazine published a really helpful article on teaching children how to ride a bike many years ago. Forget the idea of running alongside your kid holding on to the seat while she freaks out yelling, “Don’t let go! Don’t let go!” Lying you say, “I’ve got you. I won’t let go.” At some point you let go of the seat while you continue to run alongside pretending you’re still holding on. Eventually, you confess she was riding by herself and you weren’t really helping at all. Of course, there is usually a crash or two resulting in tears and road rash.

In my practice I’ve met children who were so afraid to try riding again that their parents never got them back on a bike. When I run into these kids I tell them and their parents how they can lower the seat on their bike so the child’s feet are flat on the ground, take the pedals off so they’re out of the way, then go to the top of a grassy hill with a gentle slope. Have them point the front wheel down hill, lift their feet and roll down a gentle hill. Preferably, the hill runs out into a flat so the bike naturally will slow down. If she feels a little out of control she just puts her feet down on the ground. Think successive approximations. Have the child sit on the seat and walk the bike down the hill one step at a time until she feels more in control. Typically, what happens is that she will take bigger and bigger risks and coast for longer distances. Eventually, you have her ride with her feet on the pedals and pedal out when she hits the flat at the bottom. Since she is on grassy ground, falling is not a big deal. In addition, with feet easily on the ground falling is more like laying the bike down. Everybody I’ve shared this technique with has reported success in teaching his or her child to ride.

My grandson, his grandmother and I worked on this technique. He was only four years old, and he got a bit tired after about ten downhills. He did take larger risks, but when he wasn’t successful coasting as far as he’d like, he wanted to put the training wheels back on. I told him that he was doing fine and we’d simply practice more tomorrow. His daddy continued to follow the technique and sent us a video of him coasting and pedaling and then pedaling out at the bottom of the hill. I’ll never forget hearing him yell, “I can ride my bike!” when he came finally came to a stop.

Behavioral science and learning theory teach us about successive approximations. Counselors and clients break tasks down into more manageable parts while reinforcing effort with each approximation of the goal behavior along the way. You can see how this makes learning more interesting and less intimidating. This concept works in therapy when we do exposure and response prevention. Facing fears can be intimidating, but if we break down the task and look for ways that make approaching fears easier, there is a very high probability of success.

David Barnhart, EdD

Licensed Counselor

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor


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