There’s a quiet public pathway where I often go for a walk at lunchtime if the weather is fine. I was there again a couple of days ago, but this was the hot Sunday afternoon of the Bank Holiday weekend. What a difference! A throng of walkers, joggers, runners and cyclists stretched for miles along the path.
Whole families were out cycling. Typically, an older child would race past me. Then Dad would come along, shouting at her not to get too far ahead, a trailer attached to his bike for the baby. Last would come Mum shepherding the middle boy, still with stabiliser wheels on his bike.
What are stabilisers for, anyway? I never had stabilisers.
Teach your child
Here’s how to teach your child to ride a bike.
- For a child who can walk well and run a little, a kiddie tricycle is optional. It teaches how to pedal, but that’s not difficult anyway. It teaches how to steer, but the steering is wrong, so tricycle-style steering has to be unlearned at the next stage.
- For a child who can run confidently without falling over, a scooter teaches balance and proper steering. Crucially, the balance and the steering are linked. That means when the scooter falls over to one side, it also steers to that side, just like a bicycle. If the kid falls off, it’s only an inch to the ground, so it also teaches that falling off and getting back on are not a big thing.
- For a child who can confidently scoot round corners, both left and right, the next stage is a real bike, but a small one with the saddle set low. No stabiliser wheels. This bike is to sit on and scoot with both feet. No pedalling required. In fact, this is how bicycles started way back in 1818. It was forty years before pedals were added.
- For a child who can keep pedalling around corners, both left and right, and stop by using the brakes, not the feet, the final stage is to add gears and raise the saddle to the right height. The right height for leisure cycling allows stopping with just one toe on the ground while remaining on the saddle. (Serious cyclists have the saddle higher than this to get full leg extension on the pedals, but that means they can’t stop and remain seated.)
What does this have to do with CBT? Everything.
Recovery from a mental illness is mostly about finding your own sense of balance. It’s not about bolting on stabilisers.
Of course, it’s not exactly like learning to ride a bicycle either. In mental illness there’s some particular thing causing you to unbalance. Finding that thing and centring it so that you can balance again is what a psychotherapist helps you to do. But when that part is done, it’s your own sense of balance that takes over, not some bolt-on contraption.
In a previous post I described these bolt-on contraptions in psychotherapy as ‘overlay’ techniques, because people try to lay them over the symptoms of their illness. But attempting that has two drawbacks. First, it doesn’t work. You end up struggling to bolt the thing on to your life, and at the same time you struggle with the original symptoms. Second, it actually prevents your own sense of balance from emerging (just like stabiliser wheels do on children’s bicycles).
Why are overlay techniques so popular? One reason is that they allay therapists’ fears, in just the same way as stabiliser wheels allay the fears of anxious parents.
As a parent, you cannot teach your child to ride a bicycle. There is no way to put it into words, no obvious way to break it down into discrete steps. Unlike reading, tying shoe laces and crossing the road, the child’s learning to ride a bicycle is out of your control.
This feeling of being out of control is scary for parents. It’s easy for them to take control back by bolting on stabiliser wheels. Now the child’s safety depends on something the parents did, not on the child’s own skill. Children pick up and reflect parental insecurity about bicycles, parental distrust of their skills, and also the parents’ feeling of being reassured by the stabilisers.
As a therapist, you cannot teach your patient to be well. You cannot force it to happen. It is out of your control. This is scary for therapists. It’s easy for them to take control back by bolting on techniques that they own and can know all about. Therapists are reassured by this, but their patients are prevented from finding the balance within themselves.
Every time I go for a walk and a family cycles past, with parents’ knees sticking out to the sides because their saddles are too low, and children lurching from one stabilser wheel to the other, I allow myself a little shake of the head and a smile. When it’s only a family outing in the sunshine it matters very little. But when it’s a person’s mental health, their life itself, it matters very much.