This fear of insects may be extreme

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 2, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hello Barbara,
My four year old is terrified of things that fly -- bees, flies, mosquitos, and camel flies. Whenever she goes out on the playground at pre-school, she screams and hollers because she is terrified of the bees,etc..I have to go to the school and try to calm her down and her teachers told me that she will be unable to attend field trips that require being outdoors because she is terrified. It is frustrating! What should I do? It is interfering with her playtime at school and her other classmates are disturbed by her crying.

From: VGN, West End, NC


Dear VGN,

Ah, the perennial spring question....

What most experts will you about a child's fear is that if it is getting in the way of child's ability to function on a daily basis, consult with a professional. From what you're describing, I'd say you're there. Start with your pediatrician.

But I want to back up a little bit. I think you're there because I'm two assumptions. One, that her teachers are experienced professionals who have worked with frightened preschoolers before; and, two, that because of this they can compare her reaction to other children and they've deemed her reaction over-the-top and not something they can work with. I'm making that assumption because I can't think of any other reason why they would call you to come to school. Unless -- and I hesitate to even voice this -- there's some reason why they are washing their hands of her. Are there other issues involved? Because this strikes me as unusual behavior from early childhood educators. It also strikes me as unusual because by calling mom to come rescue her, they are sending a message that this is not something she can over-come on her own, not even something teachers can help her with. Have you talked with the teachers? Have you tried to work out a strategy together?

Next question: Does your daughter have reason to be frightened? Is she allergic? Has she had a bad experience, or seen someone have a bad experience being stung? Are you or someone she knows afraid of things that fly? This kind of fear can be learned.

With a typical level of fearfulness (that is, not interfering with her ability to play outside) the best (and only) way I know to help a child is through gradual exposure and desensitization. Start with pictures or a book ("Freddie The Fly" comes to mind, also "The Big Book of Bugs"), maybe poke a dead insect with a stick. Avoid pooh-poohing the fear, making fun of her, or pushing an encounter upon her: "See, look, it's just sitting on this flower."

As I've written in response to a previous email, your reaction matters. Staying calm and matter of fact -- "I know you're afraid of bees; let's put this insect repellent on so we can try [operative word; don't make any promises] not to attract them." -- is important. Too much attention could inadvertently reinforce the fear. Offer lots of praise her when she manages to remain calm.


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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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