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Facing fears

Facing Fears: It’s Like Riding a Bike

April 30, 2018     By Julie Almquist, M.S., LIMHP, and Assistant Clinic Director at Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health

Anxiety, Mental Health, Tween

Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for most kids. When they start, many are hesitant or even afraid to try. Ultimately, the lure of watching friends having fun or the desire to join in can motivate children to face their fears and eventually succeed. And just like learning to ride a bike, parents can teach their children what steps to take to overcome their fears. A good way to do that is to relate a common activity that was once a scary thing to do and is now a mastered task to current anxieties and fears children are facing.

Julie Almquist, Assistant Director of Boys Town's Behavioral Health Clinic, describes how parents can talk to their children to help them overcome new fears:  

Talking about something kids can relate to helps them see they've experienced anxiety and fear before, and that it isn't anything new or mysterious. Not every child is going to relate to riding a bike but it's a pretty common learning activity so it's a great place to start. For kids who don't relate, you might use how they learned to swim, jump off a diving board or play a musical instrument. The key is to find what's important to and motivates your child and use that as a positive experience they can build on.   

Riding a bike is a common activity kids experience and are motivated to learn to do – even though they are afraid – because other kids are doing it and they want to be part of that. So when children or teens are facing something new that they are fearful of or anxious about (e.g., storms, separating from Mom, sleepovers, starting a new school year, etc.), you can bring them back to a time when they faced and successfully overcame their fear of riding a bike by saying something like this:

Parent: "Remember when you were afraid to ride a bike? It was hard to learn but you took it step by step, faced the times you were afraid and can now ride a bike really well. Let's talk about how that can help you with the current experience you've been avoiding because you're afraid."

The idea here is to use a past success – and what they learned from it – to help kids take on things or situations that are causing fear and avoidance. So a conversation with your child might continue like this:

Parent: "What happened when you first tried to ride a bike? How did you feel?"

Child: "I was scared."

Parent: "Of what?"

Child: "Falling and getting hurt."

Parent: "What happened when you fell?"

Child: "Well, it hurt… but not as bad as I thought it would."

Parent: "What did you learn from falling?"

Child: "That it really wasn't a big deal."

Parent: "After you fell, what did you do?"

Child: "I got back on the bike and tried again. And then I got a feel for the bike and what I was supposed to do. And then it got easier and more fun."

Parent: "So what is it like now and what did you learn from the experience?"

Child: "Well, I don't even think about falling anymore. And I'm not even afraid of falling now. And I love riding with my friends."  

Parent: "That's great! The same thing can happen with what you are afraid of now. Once you face it step by step, like you did learning to ride a bike, you can get to the same place where it's not a big deal anymore."

Child: "Yeah, that makes sense… but I'm still scared."

Parent: "Starting out is always hard, but just like the bike, it gets easier once you begin."    

Relating a current fear to one a child was exposed to and successfully overcame allows them to use past experiences as learning. It also provides the motivation needed to begin the task of facing the inevitable new fears and anxieties that come with growing up. The experience helps kids focus less on how they're feeling and more on the desired task in front of them. Talking with your children in the manner described above helps them understand that opening up to fears and anxieties is not only doable but the best way to overcome them.

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