My 2-year-old came home from daycare a few weeks ago making frequent statements about bugs. “Bugs outside.” “Bugs not hurt me.” “Bugs all gone.” This was new conversation for her, but I didn’t think much about her talking about bugs. I reassured her that her statements were true. Then, when picking her up from daycare the next day, her teacher said that her play time outside was more difficult again today. What?!? I didn’t know outside play time was a problem. I then learned that a large bug landed on her a few days prior and scared her. Since that time, she had been crying when on the playground. Sure enough, that night on the front porch she was frightened over some ants crawling around. This new fear was certainly causing her distress in everyday situations, so we needed to intervene.
It is very normal for kids to have fears. Kids can develop a fear following an experience, like a scary bug landing on them, or can develop them as a result of their creative imagination. Things like dogs, storms, masks, the dark, or an automatic toilet flusher are all common fears. It makes sense, these things are unpredictable. Research has suggested that somewhere around 90% of young children have a specific fear. The good news is, fears are very treatable.
The best strategy for alleviating a fear is to – you guessed it – face that fear. However, we want to face the fear in small, manageable steps. We want to create a hierarchy (picture a staircase with multiple steps leading higher) of exposures to reach the bigger goal, which is tolerating that previously feared situation. A focus on small, manageable steps or “practices” that a child can successfully achieve will help them to build mastery and confidence. For example, if a child is fearful of dogs, you might begin by looking at books or pictures of real dogs. Once your child can complete that without distress, move to the next step of looking out the window as a dog passes, to then listening to a dog bark. Consider visiting a friend who will put their dog in the backyard so you can watch a real dog up close. You can continue to progress up a hierarchy until your child can be less distressed in the presence of a dog. If you are seeing increased resistance, it’s likely that the step is too big and we need to find a step in between. Praise each step along the way and use modeling to demonstrate bravery. Frequent practice will help to alleviate a fear more quickly.
We also need to be sure that we don’t make the fear worse. Resist your urge to over accommodate to try to protect your child, like avoiding all playgrounds where there are bugs or by running and swooping them up to hold them each time they see a bug. These responses can actually make the fear bigger! It reinforces the idea that they are not safe in that situation. Also avoid minimizing your child’s emotional response. Their fear is real and causes real distress.
The frequency of which your child will encounter the feared stimulus and the extent to which it interferes with daily activities can guide how much focus it deserves. Since my 2-year-old needed to return to her daycare playground and I couldn’t prevent those bugs, we decided to help her get more comfortable in the presence of bugs. We went from watching ants crawl around from a distance, to watching them up close, to smashing ants with our shoes. Then we looked at a bug in a jar, looked for flying bugs outside, touched a bug with our finger, and finally let a bug crawl on her hand. She’s now much happier on the playground!