After great success conquering my daughter’s elevator fear, I was eager to try this method again. Conveniently, when you are around two 2-year-olds, there is always a fear that can be addressed. This is the story of how I put my 2-year-old niece in a bike trailer and thought everything was going great until an extremely fearful tantrum showed me it was not going great at all and I needed to slow waaaaaay down.
The weather was getting better and better and I wanted to start biking my daughter to the beach and forest. My husband and I decided to take my niece with us on our forest adventure. My husband rode his bike and I rode our e-bike pulling a double bike trailer to my sister’s house. I picked up my niece and started talking enthusiastically about going to “Turtle Pond” (a forested park with a pond that is a 5-minute bike ride from our house). My daughter has always loved the bike trailer and bike seat and she was sitting patiently in the trailer when I popped my niece in and away we rode. We had a great time playing in the forest. After dealing with my daughter’s meltdown right before we needed to leave Turtle Pond, I was trying to get the kids buckled in as quickly as possible so as not to be late for nap time. My niece was having none of it. She physically resisted (which is hard because she is tiny and slight with minimal muscle strength). I could have physically forced her into the trailer, but that is a parenting method I try to use very rarely. I stopped, pulled back, and talked to her about going to see her mommy. She said she wanted to drive back. I explained there was no car; this was the only way home. She continued to resist. Eventually, I think she misunderstood what I said and was somehow convinced to get into the trailer, but as soon as I secured the buckles she started screaming. The look of desperation and fear on her face was unmistakable. She screamed to be let out. And of course, just our luck, it was also raining so I zipped up the rain cover on the trailer making it even more of a constrained box. Thankfully, my daughter did not break down through all of this and sat their quietly (her meltdown came later!). Anyway, I looked at my husband with pleading eyes, thoughts whirling around: I do not want to bike this scared child; she is terrified; it is almost nap time, she’s probably tired and I have no other way of getting her home in a timely fashion. My husband convinced me to start biking and immediately she calmed down. Ok, I thought, maybe she did not know what the bike trailer was all about. This is fine. My husband played “peek-a-boo” with her during the ride home and got some smiles. I dropped her off and explained what happened to my sister in case my niece needed to “release her emotional backpack” in the form of a good cry again.
You can guess what happened the next time my husband and I tried to take my niece on an adventure. No dice. I had already told my husband there is no way I was going to strap a screaming Niece into the bike trailer. When there is so much fear going on, that fear needs to be addressed on her timeline, not mine. I do not agree with “sink or swim” methods as I think this can lead to phobias and I think it is disrespectful of the child as a human being [more info]. Instead, I took a step back and realized I needed to make a Brave Bike Trailer Story and exposure ladder. I also needed to figure out what exactly was fearful about the bike trailer from a limited-vocabulary, minimalist speaking 2 year old. Luckily, these things became evident one day during a walk. My niece said to my sister “tight” and “bump”. In a bit of context, we discovered that my niece was afraid of bumps in the bike trailer and the tightness/constraint of the straps. I included these two specific issues in the brave story (at the time, I knew the straps were an issue but I didn’t realize the word “tight” was related which is why it is not included in the story).
We read the story and started the exposure ladder:
- Read personalized story (reward: none)
- Bring bike trailer to front door for investigative play (reward: verbal encouragement)
- Bring bike trailer on walk to park for investigative play (reward: verbal encouragement)
- Offer ride in bike trailer used as a stroller (no buckles) (reward: book in trailer)
- Go over bumps in stroller-mode (no buckles) (reward: verbal encouragement)
- Ride in bike trailer for adventure with Mommy (reward: book in trailer)
- Goal: Ride in bike trailer for adventure with Auntie A (reward: book in trailer)
We stalled on step 2! Unlike my daughter, my niece had absolutely no interest in investigating the bike trailer and playing with the zippers and buckles. My daughter still spends many minutes sitting in the trailer buckling in her stuffed animal and zipping the zippers and asks to play in the trailer every time we use it. My niece could not have cared less about the trailer. I tried step 3 and there was minimal interest from my niece. She did not care about this trailer coming with us to the local park; she cared more about looking for bugs than zipping zippers. The next idea I had was to encourage her to sit in the bike trailer for a snack and I rewarded her with a chocolate chip. This worked, but I did not want to make this a habit since I do not allow my daughter to eat in the bike trailer. From this non-step, I discovered that my niece would get in the trailer under the right circumstances and she feels proud of herself for accomplishing brave tasks. Her smile was huge, and she clapped when I stated how brave she was for sitting in the bike trailer even when she felt scared.
My next idea was to use books as an enticement into the trailer. Unlike my daughter, my niece LOVES books. All she wants to do is have someone read books to her and she is also thrilled to flip through books alone. So, I collected a few small board books and put them into the trailer on our next walk. My niece walked along without so much as a glance towards the trailer. My daughter saw the new books and jumped into the trailer. This was finally the scenario that convinced my niece to get into the trailer. I decided not to secure the straps and just slowly pushed the trailer with the kids looking at the books. At the end of the walk, I specifically pushed it over some small “off-road” grassy bumps. I ended up combining steps 4 and 5 and we had success. I found new books for step 6, and with a beach destination my niece was excited. We set up the bike trailer, showed her the books, explained where we were going, and she jumped right in! We finished off the exposure ladder by leaving Mommy at home and now my daughter and niece happily ride in the bike trailer together reading books and singing songs.
I am relieved I did not force a screaming Niece into the bike trailer. Taking a step back and seeing the situation through her eyes and addressing her fears allowed us to move forward in a positive way that ended up right where I wanted her (able to ride in the bike trailer) and, more importantly, gave her a sense of bravery and accomplishment that we can now reference for future fears. The whole process took about 2 weeks with no tears and was not intensive (i.e. I did not read the story or implement the exposure ladder steps daily). This is an example of why you do not have to write the perfect story or make the perfect exposure ladder to get positive results. Give it your best first shot and then adapt as you learn new information from your child. However, developing a plan with thoughtful steps is important to prevent you from jumping too far ahead and going faster than the child’s pace.
In my next post, I will describe the behaviorally inhibited temperament, anxiety and the numerous behaviours I noticed in my daughter that were “different”.
Sink or Swim
I do not agree with using sink-or-swim methods on children for fears. I think the messages to children from sink or swim methods are negative and include:
- The adult’s needs are most important.
- The adult doesn’t care about my needs.
- The adult does not know my concerns.
- The adult is not going to take time to find out about my concerns.
- The adult is bigger than me and can physically control me.
- There is nothing I can do to stop the adult.
So even with a successful sink or swim method (i.e. the child eventually gets into the bike trailer without screaming/crying), the messages that the adult is sending are negative, aggressive, and controlling. Whereas, in a thoughtful, planned gradual exposure method based on the child’s fears and concerns, the messages are much more positive
- The adult hears me.
- The adult wants to help me.
- I am scared and it’s okay to be scared.
- I am brave.
- I can do things all by myself.
We are all such capable adults that it can be hard to slow our life down and move at a child’s pace. But whenever we can take time, the results are so rewarding and go far beyond just conquering one fear. The child will develop greater confidence as their bravery increases as they face more fears when they feel in control of the progress.
The researcher in me is also curious if a person implementing a sink or swim method would find “success” any sooner than using a gradual exposure “planned” method. When you look at the grand scheme of life, two weeks is quite fast to go from fear of a bike trailer to happily riding for adventures!