Fear of insects

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 16, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

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?

Thanks!
From: Kay, Worcester, MA

Hi Kay,

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.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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4 comments so far...
  1. A professional hypnotist who has specific training for working with children can often help resolve these problems because kids have wonderful imaginations and respond rapidly to the right kinds of suggestions and images.

    Posted by NJ Hypnotist James Malone September 16, 11 01:28 PM
  1. I think you confused former and latter above--if your kid runs away from a bee, she's normal--by teenagers still do that. If she's afraid to go outside, that is different--its much more phobic, but probably still not the end of the world.

    Personally I think your daughter is normal and having a normal reaction to getting stung. It hurts. SHe had the unfortunate experience of running into them than stepping on one (which is not as scary, just surprising.

    In situations like this, like the September 11th letters and other issues about children's fears, one has to be very careful not to make it into the situation you fear it will become. I think parental overreaction is the cause of quite a few anxieties in young children today.
    ash

    Posted by ash September 17, 11 10:57 AM
  1. I too have a 5 year old daughter who is terrified of any bugs, especialy bees and flying insects. She has never liked bugs but recently this has become an issue. We can barely get from the car to the door of the house without a total meltdown if the tiniest of bugs happens to fly in our path. She has never been stung before or to my knowledge had any extreme negetive situation with a bug. I just don't know what to do. She no longer will go outside with her grandma to help water the plants and flowers. This was something she enjoyed last summer. She does not ask to ride her bike because I feel she is afraid to go outside. There has been only one instance that I have witnessed with her being outside and not having any issues since it got warm. I am told she plays outside at daycare and I have seen her out when I come to pick her up but that is not always without problems. I am really worried and have a hard time being pactient.

    Posted by Stacey June 23, 12 05:00 PM
  1. Like many of you that have written comments my daughter (5) is terrified of bugs. However the situation is unique. During the day she will spend hours trying to catch bugs in a jar so that she can look at them. Then come bedtime she is absolutely terrified of bugs. She fears there are bugs in her room, that will come through the windows any minute piece of black lint will set her off. We at times will spend hours trying to reassure her that there are no bugs in the house and that the bugs won't hurt her. In addition to the bug fear, our daughter is also autistic and has an anxiety disorder therefore there are days that I no longer know how to help her. I wish I could find a great kids book that deals with coping with fears of bugs. Any suggestion would be greatly accepted.

    Kind regards,
    Coleen Adderley Peachland BC, Canada.

    Posted by Coleen Adderley July 22, 12 02:05 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. A professional hypnotist who has specific training for working with children can often help resolve these problems because kids have wonderful imaginations and respond rapidly to the right kinds of suggestions and images.

    Posted by NJ Hypnotist James Malone September 16, 11 01:28 PM
  1. I think you confused former and latter above--if your kid runs away from a bee, she's normal--by teenagers still do that. If she's afraid to go outside, that is different--its much more phobic, but probably still not the end of the world.

    Personally I think your daughter is normal and having a normal reaction to getting stung. It hurts. SHe had the unfortunate experience of running into them than stepping on one (which is not as scary, just surprising.

    In situations like this, like the September 11th letters and other issues about children's fears, one has to be very careful not to make it into the situation you fear it will become. I think parental overreaction is the cause of quite a few anxieties in young children today.
    ash

    Posted by ash September 17, 11 10:57 AM
  1. I too have a 5 year old daughter who is terrified of any bugs, especialy bees and flying insects. She has never liked bugs but recently this has become an issue. We can barely get from the car to the door of the house without a total meltdown if the tiniest of bugs happens to fly in our path. She has never been stung before or to my knowledge had any extreme negetive situation with a bug. I just don't know what to do. She no longer will go outside with her grandma to help water the plants and flowers. This was something she enjoyed last summer. She does not ask to ride her bike because I feel she is afraid to go outside. There has been only one instance that I have witnessed with her being outside and not having any issues since it got warm. I am told she plays outside at daycare and I have seen her out when I come to pick her up but that is not always without problems. I am really worried and have a hard time being pactient.

    Posted by Stacey June 23, 12 05:00 PM
  1. Like many of you that have written comments my daughter (5) is terrified of bugs. However the situation is unique. During the day she will spend hours trying to catch bugs in a jar so that she can look at them. Then come bedtime she is absolutely terrified of bugs. She fears there are bugs in her room, that will come through the windows any minute piece of black lint will set her off. We at times will spend hours trying to reassure her that there are no bugs in the house and that the bugs won't hurt her. In addition to the bug fear, our daughter is also autistic and has an anxiety disorder therefore there are days that I no longer know how to help her. I wish I could find a great kids book that deals with coping with fears of bugs. Any suggestion would be greatly accepted.

    Kind regards,
    Coleen Adderley Peachland BC, Canada.

    Posted by Coleen Adderley July 22, 12 02:05 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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