My 14 month old son has developed a fear of cats and dogs, which are the only animals he's been in contact with so far. He's never been hurt by either animal. We are not pet owners.
From a distance he seems to be very interested and excited to see a dog. He points, makes barking noises, smiles, but when we get close he freaks out, clings to me and cries. As for cats, he saw a cat for the first time this past weekend at my friend's house. The cat was just walking by about 5 feet away from him and was going in the opposite direction and he totally freaked out, jumped in my arms crying and trembling.
In these situations I would comfort him and do my best to tell him that the dog or cat was friendly and wouldn't hurt him. I even go over to the cat or dog pat it and try to show him it's ok. But at 14 months, I don't believe he really understands.
I'm hoping you can give me some guidance or tips on how I can work with my son to relieve his fears because my techniques don't seem to be working.
From: KF, Boston
Something bad doesn't have to have happened to ignite his fears. Some kids are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, like dogs who bark loudly, or jump excitedly, or lick profusely. Well, doesn't have to be extreme in any of those cases. Some kids "learn" to be afraid of dogs or cats because of one in particular, or because parents are afraid. Not that this is genetic, more that parents give off body language or actually say things like, "Be careful!!" in a way that signals danger. The most likely reason, however, is that his growing brain has reached a new stage of cognition that enables him to suddenly evaluate in new ways: "Whoa! This animal is really big compared to me! This animal looks really scary from where I stand. Look at how fast it can run! Look at those teeth! Listen to that bark! Look how it jumps! Danger! Danger!!"
WebMD.com offers some common sense steps to overcoming these fears, including what I think is the most important: don't try to talk a child out of the fear. It's real to him. Saying things like, "Don't be silly, there's nothing to be afraid of," only makes your child wonder what universe you live in. Once your credibility is in question, almost anything you say doesn't compute.
1. Go at your child's pace. There's no rush. If he's ready to meet a dog, fine; if he's not, that's fine, too. Don't push it.
2. When it comes to up-close introductions, look for mature dogs. Puppies may be cuter, but they are also harder to contain and very prone to jumping, nipping and licking.
3. Listen and look at yourself. What's your body language around other people's pets? What about your spouse, or your child's grandparents? Kids pick up on non-verbal cues and they have long memories about these sensory issues: "Remember? You told me dogs can have diseases."