Our 5 year old daughter has recently become very afraid of all bugs, to the point where she screeches, runs away, starts crying, etc. It doesn't matter if the insect is a fly in the house, a bumblebee on a bush 3 feet away, etc. Same reaction.
She's never had a particular fear of insects, until last year at about this time, she was stung by wasps when apple picking (she didn't have an allergic reaction, but it was very scary). We talked with her a lot about what happened at the time, and she seemed to be more or less ok about it all. Since then, she's been mostly fine about bugs, until the past 2 weeks or so, when the ramped-up reactions started.
She's also in the middle of a growth spurt, AND she just started kindergarten. So, there's a lot going on.
We're trying (and sometimes failing ... sigh) to be patient, to explain that the bugs aren't going to hurt her, to review why she got stung before (nest right near the apples she was picking), and generally diffuse the situation, but it doesn't seem to be working. Are there other things we should say/do? Any good books about kids and fear of insects (or fears in general)? Is this a normal phase she'll grow out of, or is she on her way to a full-blown phobia?
From: Kay, Worcester, MA
I totally get the tendency to project into the future but rest assured, it's highly unlikely this will turn into a lifetime phobia. Fears like this are pretty typical in young children because, for one thing, they put cause and effect together in ways that aren't always accurate. For instance: "I was stung at apple picking time; this is apple picking time; I'm gonna get stung again." Just as she moved into this stage, she will move out of it and gradually, over time, replace that thinking: "I got stung once at apple-picking time. That doesn't mean it will happen again, but I better be careful."
Lauren Mednick, a staff psychologist at Boston Children's Hospital, says the best way to know if you need to worry about her fear is whether it interferes with daily life: Does she scream when a bug flies near her, or does she refuse to go outside because she may see a bug? If it's the former, a professional consult is a good idea. (Start with your pediatrician.) If it's the latter, remain calm, acknowledge the fear ("You worried that was a bee; I know you don't like bees."), and divert her attention
Keep in mind that your reaction can help or hurt her reactions. In an email, Mednick writes, "It is essential for parents to keep their reactions to their child’s fear “in check” so that the additional attention the child may receive does not inadvertently reinforce the fear. Try not to go out of your way to avoid bugs, as this may inadvertently reinforce the fear." On the other hand, that doesn't mean you can't model common sense: If you see a swarm of gnats ahead of you, you can circle around to avoid them.
Mednick also writes, "Use lots of praise for any 'bug experience' that the child manages to get through. A parent can even set up a simple behavioral chart in which the child gets a sticker for going outside, not melting down completely when a bug flies by, etc. One technique commonly used with fears and phobias in therapy with children is called systematic desensitization. Using this technique, the child would be gradually exposed to increasingly more anxiety provoking situations. For example, a child with a bug fear may first be shown a book about cartoon bugs, then a book about real bugs, followed by watching a video about bugs, and finally they would visit an insect exhibit at a zoo. This type of exposure helps the child gradually gain mastery of their fear. In addition to gradually exposing the child to these increasingly anxiety provoking situations, a therapist would teach a child strategies to minimize their anxiety (e.g., deep breathing, relaxation)."
Kay, for books along these lines the "Big Book of Bugs" might be one to consider. For an older child, there's the Eyewittness book on insects, or "The Children's Guide to Insect and Spiders." Or you might want to start with a storybook. At this age, my son loved "Freddie the Fly" by Charles Grodin, the delightfully unlikely story of a pet fly.
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