Easing Anxiety -Entomophobia (A Fear of Insects.)
My 7 year old has an intense legitamite fear of bugs. This makes it extremely hard for him to enjoy being outside as something as benign as a light breeze can trigger his anxiety thinking it was a bug. "What is that?" "Was that a bug?" "Is there a spider on me?" is the only conversation we have while we are out doors. When he walks outside, he is always looking down, scoping his upcoming steps for bugs.
When he first started displaying signs of bug related anxiety I would quickly react and remove him from his environment, but I quickly realized I was sending the wrong message by intensifying his reaction based off of my fright /flight attitude.
I came across this article by Beverly Smolyansky, PHD about how to tackle these fears together, gently:
Put a label on it. Your child’s perception is his reality. Dismissing his fear by downplaying it might make him feel worse about it. Saying something like, “Boy, you looked really startled when you saw that bug,” justifies his feelings without saying it’s right or wrong. Labeling also shows your child that you understand what is happening, and that you care.
Model calm behavior. Children are incredibly insightful and pick up on when their parents are anxious or afraid of things. If you’re afraid of spiders and react by jumping up on a chair when you see one, it’s going to be more difficult for your child to overcome her fear of spiders. Taking deep breaths and remaining calm will go a long way in helping your child to stay calm as well.
Educate yourself and your child. Children, like adults, are better equipped to handle the unknown or the unexpected when they’re educated on the topic. Go get books and movies about the bug that frightens your child. Watch a national geographic or discovery channel special. My daughter was afraid of centipedes, so we got a book about them. We learned that they eat spiders, and in our minds, spiders are worse than centipedes. We started calling them “helper bugs,” and my daughter was more relaxed around them once she understood their purpose.
Avoid over exposure. Parents have the best intentions when trying to help their children face their fears. However, exposure to the insect he’s afraid of needs to be done in a slow and methodical way. For example, if your child is afraid of ants, forcing one to crawl on him is going to be overwhelming and will probably make him run away. He’ll likely calm down once he’s removed from the situation, which can unintentionally reinforce his fear when he realizes he’s more calm when he’s not around ants.
Start off by observing. Watching an insect and seeing what it does is a great way to expose your child to it without it being an overwhelming experience. Try going to the insect house at the zoo. Get an insect house and catch one. Talk to your child about what it is doing.
Go on a bug hunt. The next step might be to go looking for the bug in your yard. Grab a net and go on a hunt. Kids are much braver when they encounter the bug on their terms.
Teach positive self-talk. When you and your child encounter a bug and she shows fear, try to rationalize with her. Ask her who’s bigger, her or the bug? Who’s stronger? And give her the words to say to herself: I can do this. It’s just a little bug.
Distract and relax. If your child is overwhelmed and doesn’t want to talk about bugs anymore, find something else to do. Go play on the swing set, or whatever your child enjoys doing. If he’s overwhelmed, help him calm down by closing his eyes and taking deep breaths.
The takeaway here is that regardless of what your child is afraid of, fear is completely normal for children and parents can play a large role in helping their kids work through it. But sometimes it is appropriate to seek additional help.
This article helped me really see how to approach my son's fear, and how we could work together on helping him cope. There are some days he won't have anything to do with coming outside, or joining us to play. I make sure to ask him why he doesn't want to come out, and then reassure him that it is okay. We will sometimes leave it alone for a bit and then come back to ask again after a while, and he will take us up on it. There are some times where we are outside doing just fine, and then suddenly he screams and darts off into the house. We will follow him in and help him calm down and reassure him that he is okay. We asked him what happened and what he was afraid of. Often we say things like, "Oh gosh, that must have really startled you," or "Man it sounds like you weren't expecting that breeze, and you got scared thinking it was a bug." On days that aren't as bad as the others sometimes I will go a bit deeper after he is calm, "What would you have done if it was a spider on crawling on your arm?" He might answer me with, "I would have shoo'd it off and ran inside!" I would follow up with, "well that was easy enough to get him off of you just a quick brush!" hoping to help him understand there was an effective fix to this situation.
When he isn't upset about it, and casually, we will read about different bugs, and which bugs are safe to handle and observe closely, and which ones we should observe from a distance. We also do a number scale of safe bugs, and bugs that can cause discomfort, and then bugs to avoid because they aren't safe to handle. We really put emphasis on the chances/likelihood of coming across the more unsafe ones, and try helping him realize just calmly walking away will suffice with things such as ground spiders, and wasps, bees, etc. I NEVER tell him "they won't hurt you," or "they won't bite/sting" because there is a chance they may. I always tell him that he will be okay, and that it may feel like an pinch or sting if they do, but that we have things to help it feel better right away.
So today was a really nice Spring morning, I decided to do a gentle intro to reminding him our buggy friends are out and playing in their environment we share with them. I pulled up a nature scavenger hunt that included a few insects to start him off in a distracted state. He was super excited he got to bring his iPad outside (typically we don't allow this.) He was also really into walking around with a purpose, taking nice photos (he was really into making sure he got it close enough, in focus, and had a nice shot sometimes moving the subject ever so slightly to get "The money shot!"
I knew it was a matter of time when he would start to become anxious, I could tell by his speech patterns that he was getting excited, and very okay okay next one as if we were in a hurry. It started off really smooth but as we got past the insects (he chose to look under a rock and found ants to photograph and he is extremely afraid of ants, but he chose and took a very nice photo on his own without me telling him what to photograph) so this was a HUGE accomplishment in itself. I did not make a big deal over him facing his fear, rather we talked about what they were carrying and looked close at the holes they were marching in and out of. Gently exposing him, this was prompted, but he could have easily asked to skip this. HUGE DEAL!!! Next big one was a spider web. He at first asked me to find it, saying it was hard to see because they were clear, but he was definitely avoiding getting close to a potential spider nemesis. I helped him locate a web, and he got really close and took a photo of the web, with a teeny tiny spider and even remarked how "cute" it was! SUCH A BIG DEAL!
After these I knew there was going to be a meltdown soon, because that was a lot of fear he just plowed through without any problems. We got through just past the halfway point, where he was taking a photo of a toy in the yard, and BOOM! He kicked off his shoe, screamed and shouted "ITS ON ME IS IT ON ME?!?" I walked over (not ran) and had him hold on to me while I cleaned out his shoe in the same spot. Careful not to whisk him away but I was there with him, redirecting while cleaning his shoe. I said "oh my gosh! That had to startle you thinking there was a spider in your shoe! But there isn't, and you can put it back on!" I asked him what he was taking a photo of and he was so upset, bawling, but managed to focus and tell me he was taking a photo of a toy in our yard. I asked him if he wanted me to help him find the next item and he asked to go inside. We held hands walking through the yard back into the kitchen, where we sat and looked at how many items we did in such a short time! I told him he did a great job, and to look at what the next photo was to check off... it was a photo of himself! We could do that inside!!! So he wiped his tears away, and took the sweetest selfie ever. Afterwards we hugged, got drinks and snacks, and sat together watching a favorite show!
Today was a success. He did a great job and we did self motivated exposure in our backyard, together, and he was having a blast doing it. We worked through the stressful moment, we labeled feelings, talked about how it must have felt, and also talked about how brave he was handling it and for putting his shoe back on before he WALKED inside :)
I wanted to share this with you all, as fears are very real to children, especially at this age. I wouldn't call them completely irrational... I focus more on it being based on the unknown. With gentle education on the topic, and support, these fears do lessen with time. Sometimes they creep back up and become intense again... and being aware of their big VERY REAL feelings is the best thing you can do to help them work through this! Don't ever shame them or say "You are being over dramatic!" Lots of love, and lots of reassurance that things will be okay, when you are certain they will be!