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

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.

Last medical review on: March 12, 2009
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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My son is afraid of bugs and fears they are in his food. This is getting worse and he is not eating now. Help?!?
He has qualified for feeding therapy, but the wait list is LOOOOONG. He has a psychiatrist but we are still not getting anywhere.
Thanks in advance!

He is also afraid of bugs anywhere. Spiders are particularly panic inducing. I (unfortunately) probably am to blame for this. I have arachnophobia and tho I have had my own therapies, I am still plagued by this debilitating fear, so I am sure I passed it along to him. The guilt of this eats at me. I tried SO hard to NOT pass that one on.

He is also terrified of bathing… But he is fine in a pool.

We start ABA next month, but I worry that the approach might not be appropriate for the phobias. I want him to get help, not just change his behavior…


Hello my daughter has completed 5yrs N she is scared of fan window could u just help me what she is going through

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My daughter ever since she was born shes been afraid of rain and wind she would scream hide under the blanket end up sleeping m seriously worried that it doesnt get better it becames worse the older she gets

Hi Thembi,
Thanks so much for writing in! I’m sorry to hear about the challenges with your daughter’s fear of wind and rain.

Dr. Greene says in the article, “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.”

With my own kids, I’ve also found it helpful to read books about childhood anxiety so I feel better prepared to handle whatever arises. (For example,

Hope that helps!
Alexandra (caring helper at, not a doctor)

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I am at the end of my tether and really need to know what is causing this fear!

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With Ladybugs, she has a ladybug backpack, was a ladybug for Halloween one year, has a ladybug pillow pet, but if you get one near her she will run off crying. Any suggestions would be very helpful. With all of the other setbacks and struggles she has to endure, being afraid of the irrational seems like something I should be able to assist her with as her therapists have to spend their time focusing on her occupational therapy and learning needs.

My son just moved into a bigger home a few months ago. Since they moved in, my 5 yr old grandson is not sleeping well and he is afraid in the house all the time (even during the day). He can’t tell us why he doesn’t like their new house. He just says the house is too big and he does worry about someone breaking in. Will anyone give us any ideas or strategies to help him to get over they fear?

Hi Loviena,

First, let me be very clear — I’m not Dr. Greene. (He’s my husband and partner. We created this site together.) I am responding as a mom. Sorry, but sometimes when I post people think it’s Dr. Greene and I didn’t want you to mistake me for him.

Now, my thoughts. Has this house ever been broken into? Kids are often listening even when we think they are pre-occupied. Perhaps he heard someone mention it? Or mention a break-in in the neighborhood? If so, that would explain why he feels afraid.

Regardless of the reason, it sounds like a very real fear for him. He can’t go to sleep because he might be hurt if he’s not vigilant. He might be able to relax if he knew there was a way to catch someone before they broke in. Does the house have an alarm system? If so, perhaps arming it before bed would be wise. If not, it may well be worth the investment to a simple alarm or video doorbell system. For his needs it would not need to be connected to the police, as long as you were clear that if someone tried to break in an alarm would go off that would wake you all up and scare the bad-guys off. This might help him relax enough to let go and let sleep over take him.

Dr. Greene wrote a recent post about other things that make it harder to go to sleep. You can read it here — Sleep Blues. He addresses Blue Light Syndrome and outlines why we need to make changes in our homes to help get high quantity and quality of sleep.

Please let us know how this works out.

Executive Producer, and Mom

My soon to be 6 year old is still screaming bloody murder every time a fly, Nat, moth or even ant gets near her. She’s been like this since she was 3. I’m about to go insane. I can’t go anywhere without people thinking I’m beating my child with her screams. She will literally give up outside play or swimming to avoid these. I don’t know what to do! She follows me around my house now ever since a fly got in. I can’t sleep alone, shower alone or even pee alone. Anyone have suggestions!?

How about a funny bug puppet show where the characters are sock-fly, sock-spider, sock-ladybird? And after that carry that funny show over to real bugs?

My son is extremely terrified of all bugs. This sounds very similar to me. He’s 3 1/2 and can’t be around flies, mosquitoes, ants, anything without screaming and throwing a complete fit. It’s been hard because my family has the mentality that he’s a boy and boys are never afraid of bugs. I even read this article out loud and was told , “yea but that’s a little girl.”

My 4 yr old child has become terrified of any type of bug and the thought of a bug sends her in to severe panic, even if its just her own thought one might be around. I have tried all of the things you mentioned in your reply to other parents as to get her to calm down. She isnt hearing a word i say, she wont even draw a bug with me, or play with tiny plastic ones. My child is at the point where she is hurting herself when she panics trying to get away from her thought of a bug or an actual bug or fly. I tried bringing this up to her family dr the other day, but she just said she will be ok. should i record my child and show the dr how intense it really is? she shakes, has anxiety attacks, difficulty breathing, and now too nervous to even sit down and eat. i feel like ive tried everything to help her EVEN PROTECT AND COMFORT HER! I feel so bad that nothing i say or do helps her…. what should i do?

My daughter is 5 and I am experiencing the same exact thing. I have no idea what to do.

My 8 and a half year old daughter saw a mini clip at school about maybe “aliens are out to get humans, will zap them with their guns”…this has been 6 weeks now and she is trending worse. I have made the alien spray, assured her there are no such things, but I have no idea how to help her and feel like I may need to seek counseling myself because if I go more than an arm’s length from her she really becomes distraught that the aliens are going to get her…someone *has* to be in the same room close by with her or else she is hysterical, truly hysterical…any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

“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.

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 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!

You could also check out 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.