Going Up? - How We Conquered My Son's Fear of Elevators

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I’m not sure when I first noticed it, but I will never forget that look of fear in my son’s eyes. We were making our weekly visit to the library, something we had done together even as an infant back when I used to take him for story time. Now those visits had shifted more towards playing with table toys, checking out the cool sensory pieces hanging on the walls, and picking out a few books to check out and bring home. We were riding the elevator up to the second floor. With his gross motor skills not where they needed to be, the stairs became an effort of labor and I wanted him to enjoy his experience here and not turn it into an OT session. As we were riding up I noticed his eyes grow wider and his mouth slowly beginning to open as if he might scream. Is he scared of the elevator? As we stepped off, I put it out of my mind because that would be impossible to develop a fear of something we had been doing on a regular basis. Right?

This fear slowly morphed into something bigger than we were prepared for. Soon the pained look in his face turned into crying/whining while riding up. After a few more weeks, it turned into screaming and running for the exit. My little guy who never once eloped (a behavioral term meaning running away and not coming back) was taking off at the sight of an elevator. I was determined not to let this affect our library outings.  There was a library down the street from our new house that was single story, and a lot closer to us. This had nothing to do with avoiding his fear, I convinced myself, as it was simply was a better decision for both of us. And big malls with elevators? Forget it. Why put him through the crying and screaming when there was a great outdoor mall in the area? So what if it was 45 minutes from our house? I had this under control.

Around December we booked a night at a local hotel for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas. I made sure to get reservations on the first floor so we could avoid the elevator all together. When we arrived to check in, there had been some kind of mistake and the reservation had been moved to the third floor. My husband held Nick as he was kicking and screaming doing everything in his power to get away from having to ride on the elevator. When we arrived in the hotel room itself, it took him thirty minutes just to calm down and he wouldn’t come out into the living area of our suite because he knew that was putting him that much closer to the elevator. It wasn’t until this moment that I had realized I was just as fearful of dealing with this problem as he was of the elevator itself. I knew I had to face our fears head on and fast as soon we would be given an even greater motivator for getting this fear under control.

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During the Winter/Spring of 2017, we had just started the process of touring private schools for Nick that might be a good alternative to public education. Our top choice at the time, that offered the low ratios that we wanted and a strong inclusion program had an elevator. While his classroom would be on the ground floor, the elevator was opposite the doors entering the building and would be something he would need to be able to walk by every day and use on a weekly basis for group lunch and other school events. It was awful to think how one thing could create so much havoc on this poor little kid’s life. Newly resolved, and with the support of my husband, we began a plan to get the upper hand on this.

With anything in life, it’s all about one step at a time. I started small by just having him watch videos on YouTube of, you guessed it, elevator rides. I was surprised, and a little concerned, to discover that there were lots of people who made it their hobby to film and comment on different elevators and give a review of the view they provided. To each their own. While tactfully hitting the mute button, Nick and I watched clip after clip of these different elevator rides. The first time his entire body tensed up, and he would physically jump as the doors opened and shut. It is still amazing to me even now to think that his fear had developed to such an intensity that watching a video would cause such a reaction. After a few weeks of this we started doing trial practices. None of these were pleasant or unique in design. My husband or myself would simply take him to known places with elevators (i.e. malls, offices, shopping centers etc.) and we would have him either touch the elevator and leave or actually take a ride on it up and down despite the crying and protests. I varied what would happen each time so that hopefully it would lessen the extent of his reaction. We would reinforce immediately after with verbal praise and a special treat.

It sounds like I knew what I was doing, but it’s a lot different when it’s your own child and you’re dealing with your own personal frustrations. As summer approached and I had enrolled Nick in said school and accepted a teaching position there, I began to feel the beginnings of panic that this wasn’t going to work and we were stuck with this awful fear forever. Luckily, there was still one more thing we had not tired.

Nick’s favorite person in the world is his Opa, my husband’s step-dad. While I wish I could take credit for this genius idea it was all his. Traveling is a regular part of Opa’s work and he was always at the airport. Nick’s Oma (Grandma) volunteered to start taking Nick to the airport to pick Opa up, which would mean riding the elevator up and down. I thought the gesture was sweet, but I was certain it wouldn’t work. Until the unbelievable  happened. I got a text of a picture. Nick in his Opa’s arms smiling in an elevator. I could not believe what I was seeing. At this point we were almost going on one year of extreme terror, and I could not wrap my head around the fact that just as suddenly as the fear had came it was gone. But it was.

I quickly put it to the test, and sure enough, Nick would readily get on the elevator, push the button of the floor number I asked, and get off like it was no big deal. Not only that, but he liked it. Mind blown. Now, every morning when we get to our school we take the elevator to the third floor where my classroom is. He squeals gleefully as we approach jumping up and down in anticipation. People smile, and most of the time someone will say, “He really likes elevators doesn’t he?” I just smile and nod.

We sometimes go back to visit our old library. He asks to take the stairs. I nod approvingly. That’s one elevator I will be happy to never revisit.

Laura MaitlandComment