Dealing with Irrational Fears

Dr. Greene, my 3 and a half year old daughter has an irrational fear of bugs. She never used to be afraid of them. Now she stands and screams and refuses to go wherever there might be bugs. These aren’t bugs that sting. We’ve tried explaining that to her. My husband says I should just force her to face them, that she’ll get over it. My mother says I should just ignore her fears. Is this normal? What should I do?
Teresa – Kentucky

Dealing with Irrational Fears

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

At around age three, most children enter into a magical time where make-believe is the order of the day. Imagination and creativity spring to life. Playtime becomes a setting where wonderful dreams and desires are acted out as kids learn how to pretend. A few props can turn an ordinary rainy afternoon into a trip to a magic castle or the Old West.

But this rich imaginary world is peopled with both heroes and villains, with both marvels and monsters. New fears are a necessary part of entering the world of possibilities. As the imagination blossoms, kids who never before had problems with the dark are now terrified. The neighbor’s friendly dog is seen as a menacing danger. An ant on the sidewalk might as well be a powerful alien. Monsters!

Most children, Teresa, will develop one or more deep fears to work through. It might be people in masks, old people, or people with scars. It might be parents leaving or burglars coming. It might be imaginary creatures or wild animals. It might be bugs.

A natural response for parents who see their children cowering before an inchworm is to try to talk their children out of the fear. Kids respond, though, by cranking up the imagination — the imagined possibilities become worse, not better. And the children feel disconnected from their parents. Ridiculing or threatening children for their fears is even more damaging (sadly I hear this from time to time at playgrounds and stores).

Instead, acknowledge the fear, while remaining calm yourself. Assure her of your protection and support. When children see that you take their concerns seriously, they feel closer to you and are more ready to work through the fears.

Do not force your daughter to confront the object of her fears.

One of the fastest ways to help, though, is to provide opportunities to play with NON-THREATENING versions of them. I know a little girl who was terrified of all dogs. Her parents took her to visit a litter of newborn puppies. She was delighted. They got her a cute dog stuffed animal — she felt mixed. They watched Snoopy videos. Soon her stuffed dog began chasing her dolls, but her dolls learned how to make the dog friendly. In her pretend play, she worked through her own fears.

For kids who are afraid of the dark, this might mean lots of play with flashlights and colored lights in a darkened room during the daytime. For kids who are afraid of monsters, monster action figures can be the key (as well as good guys to overcome the monsters).

You might want to take a trip to the toy store to look for non-intimidating critters. Games such as “Cootie” and “Ants in the Pants” are popular partly because these fears are common. An ant farm (or a cricket in a terrarium) allows her to interact with bugs while keeping them safely behind glass. Let her comfort level guide you throughout the process.

Parents can be an immense help by giving children ideas for working through the fears during play. One of my children was very afraid of ghosts. Instead of telling him that there aren’t any ghosts, we told him that sometimes the ghosts were even more afraid of him than he was of them. When he said, “Boo!” the ghosts would run away — and they did! We joined him in his play and guided him to a way that worked for him to conquer his fears.

“That worked for him” is a key part of the process. Many pretend suggestions I’ve made have been corrected by my kids. “These monsters aren’t afraid of words. These monsters are afraid of my flashlight!” Making suggestions is helpful, but listen eagerly to their corrections. This is our children’s battle that they need to win in their own ways.

Monster spray is often helpful. A spray bottle filled with water can make the monsters run away, especially if the bottle is appropriately labeled. Grab some crayons, have some fun– many children do best if they illustrate the label themselves.

Children’s literature is a great resource for this type of work. Classic fairy tales feature a child overcoming witches and monsters. (I like Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. )

Frightening television and videos, on the other hand, tend to be overwhelming rather than healing. These vivid visual images anchor fears and remain seared into the memory. Visual processing of fears is a potent tool, but it needs to come in a form that the child can then partially forget.

It’s no coincidence that nightmares are common during this season. If your child wakes up from a nightmare (not night terrors), assure her of your protection, and gently encourage her to tell you what happened in the dream. This will point you powerfully toward the themes (abandonment, loss, powerlessness) that are most important to work through.

Whatever fears do arise, your children’s artwork is an even greater resource than art you can buy. Get her drawing pictures, finger-painting, making models, designing games around her fears — where the fears are met and overcome. Blocks, toy buildings, cars, dolls, puppets, crayons and paper are basic ingredients to successful play. Child-determined play is far richer than toys that do the playing for them.

In the same ways, stories that originate in your own family can be even more powerful than the classics of children’s literature. Listen to the stories that your child tells while playing, and tell them back to her. Create your own tales on the same themes. If you feel stuck, you might like, Tell Me a Fairy Tale by Bill Adler, a parent’s guide to telling magical and mythical stories.Use these same tools to connect with your daughter about pleasant dreams as well.

This season of heightened imagination is a precious time. Dreaming of wonders, and pretending great exploits, are the seedbed where life’s dreams are born. These times are fun. But it is the darker side of this season, the working through fears, that is even more valuable. Here you teach your child to recognize the fears that can hobble dreams, to acknowledge these fears, to face them, and to find her own way to break through to the other side.

The courage she will earn is the strength beneath all other virtues. Honesty, love, compassion, loyalty, dreams, and ideals will all be tested by fear. The depth of her courage will be the roots that determine how high she can grow.

Far from ignoring her fears, treat them with tenderness and eager patience. They are an invaluable window into your daughter’s inner life and the development of her soul.

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Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. Walt

    “What do you do if your child has an irrational fear of trying new foods. It is at the point were my wife and I are at wits end. Every thing is too squishy, small, crunchy, yellow, square mushy ETC…… Says he is afraid of it. Rewards do not work. will forgo several meals in a row in order to avoid new foods. Help.

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    • Kia Robertson

      Hi Walt, I would suggest looking into Sensory Processing Disorder, your son might have a genuine issue with texture, smells etc because they are too intense for him. Here is a great site full of info on this subject http://spdstar.org/ I would also suggest trying to determine what types, textures, colors of food your son does like and then altering new food to match that as closely as possible. For example if he doesn’t like things that are squishy and mushy try to avoid that entire texture group for now and instead offer foods that are more dry, crispy, crunchy. If he doesn’t like certain shapes or sizes you can try using mini cookie cutters to reshape food. When offering a new food, try to always include at least one of his favorite foods so that he can feel confident that there will be something to eat that he does like. When introducing a new food do it very slowly, take it in baby steps such as having him just look at the food, then smell the food, then touch the food with a finger tip and work you way to a taste with the tip of the tongue…the plan is to expose him to the new food without the expectation of him having to actually eat it yet. Think of it as him being shy of a new food, let him get to know the new food gradually. The reason why rewards do not work for your son is probably because his fear is very real to him and if he does have SPD he will genuinely have issues with the sensory elements of food. I hope this is helpful!

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  2. @MonsterDefense

    You could also check out monster-defense.com. We have a wonderful-smelling spray available now & a fun, illustrated children’s story coming out in Dec 2013 that tells the story of a little boy with a monster in his room, and how he overcame his fear of monsters. In researching online prior to writing the book, we read many articles from child & adolescent psychologists and parents about recommended methods for dealing with fear of monsters, and interpreted this into a fun, rhyming story which gives parents direction on how to help & gives kids the tools necessary to overcome their fear.

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  3. Ronda Silvis

    That is great advice for the usual fears. Unfortunately, my step-son’s Boogie Man is his mother. She has custody of him but his father gets him every other weekend during school and every other week during summer. He recently expressed to us that he is afraid his mom is going to come into the house at night and steal him away from us. As the non-custodial parent, his father has no ability to get him into counseling and the mother refuses to do so. What can we do for my poor step-son?

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