How To Help Children Overcome Their Fears


In this episode: A parent writes that her 3-year-old has developed a phobic response to bugs and is withdrawing from activities she’s always loved because of the fear. This mom and her husband have tried several strategies to help their daughter including acknowledging her fear, but to no avail. They’re out of ideas and assume they’re doing something wrong. “I want to show her we love and respect her emotions but also help her work through it.”

Transcript of “Seriously Bugged by Bugs: Working with Your Child to Overcome Fears”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question here from a parent whose daughter seems to have an irrational, intense fear of bugs and it’s starting to interfere with her activities and her life.

BabySleepMiracle

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old. My three-year-old is normally the sweetest, most adventurous child. She loves running, playing, and digging in the dirt. As the weather improves for outside play, she seems to have developed a phobic response to bugs over the winter. She’s withdrawing from things she loves because of the fear. She’s always loved playing on her trampoline, but now won’t go near it. Seeds from a nearby tree fall onto it and she thinks they’re bugs. She loves playing dress up, but she’s given up her beloved sandals because she’s afraid bugs will get on her feet. She even begs me to roll the windows up in the car because she’s terrified one will come through the window. Many times, she will scream so hysterically I think she is seriously injured. My husband and I have done things like acknowledge her fear, I see that bug is scaring you, and holding bugs myself to demonstrate they aren’t scary or bad through action versus words. I’ve tried to help her find solutions to deal with this fear, where I ask her to take a big deep breath, tell me there is a bug and that she would like to walk away from it. I don’t know if any of this is right. I want to show her we love and respect her emotions, but also help her to work through it.”

This parent is right on track. She seems to be understanding how to help her daughter through this process. There are some details I want to try to help redirect her a little bit, but mostly she totally gets this. She says, “I want to show her we love and respect her emotions, but also help her to work through it.” Yes, absolutely. That is our role. What will help us to do that is to understand that young children are really, really good at working through their feelings. They do it naturally. They have an overwhelming urge to do it. That’s why people call these the terrible two’s, and that three and four are difficult years as well. They are times of turbulent emotions because children are taking in and processing out all of their feelings. They aren’t like us as adults, where we might suppress and temper them. They put it all out there. It is very healthy for them to do so.

What it seems is happening here is this little girl has some feelings. It could very well be around the fact that there is a one-year-old sibling. Oftentimes, children have a difficult process around accepting that sibling. Sometimes when the parent is expecting another baby they start to have feelings come up, fear of losing their parents’ love and losing their place in the family as they know it. Those changes that shift their position in life a little bit. That can be scary. Each child has a unique process around this, but commonly children will have different phases of it.

They have the expecting parent phase where there’s this mystery that they sense, that they hear people talking about. Whoa, what is this going to be like? All the indications are that this is going to be a big deal and yet I’ve never experienced this. That’s scary.

Then, the arrival of the baby. It’s not as mysterious, but they still feel that shift in their parents’ attention. A lot of focus is gone from them to this baby.

Then, that child becomes a mobile infant, and for a lot of children there’ll be another wave of uh-oh, this is scary. This is actually a person that can move around, that is more like me and someone that could be a threat to me with my parents.

And then, if I’m acting out of those uncomfortable feelings as a child and my parents are scolding me, as is sometimes hard for us as parents not to do, maybe the child isn’t acting out with the baby but they’re falling apart with the parent or pushing limits with the parent… that even assures them more that they have a lot to be afraid of, that they are losing something that they desperately need.

And then, that baby might become a walking baby at around the end of the first year or early into the second year. Now, Whoa. This is a person standing vertically on two feet. So there’s another wave. And then the beginning of that baby communicating verbally. All of these things that are exciting for us as a parent can bring another wave of fear for our older child.

I don’t know for sure that that’s happening, but there’s very likely some feeling stirring around this. What children do with these fears sometimes is transfer them to other situations that put them off balance, that surprise them.

All of this can happen with a child who doesn’t have a sibling as well, by the way. The rapid development that’s going on in these early years, they’re growing and changing so fast. They want their world to be as stable and predictable as possible so that they can handle all these shifts that are going on inside them.

So, when something comes along that’s surprising … This mother doesn’t say how this developed, the first time that she noticed her daughter being frightened by bugs. And maybe she didn’t notice the first time, but what commonly happens is that the child is taken by surprise, the bug comes a little too close or out of the blue, and they react to that and it taps into all their feelings of lack of control in their world. In this case, maybe lack of control of this rival that’s now maybe walking and seems more of a threat. And that small incident gets loaded with feelings that really don’t have much to do with the bug itself, but that is what triggers them.

So yes, she does need to express these feelings. Work through them. Work that comes very naturally to young children, this processing of their feelings.

The ideal way to react as a parent to help our child is to not jump to uh-oh, my child has got a fear of bugs, but to wind that back to all that we know for sure, which is, “Whoa, that rattled you.” And with young children, I’ve seen this happen around a lot of issues. It can be the way the toilet flushes and things disappear. I had a child that I worked with that didn’t like the idea of something being broken, like a branch or a flower. If something would break, that would stir these uncomfortable feelings in her. Commonly, it’s surprising things that are unpredictable to our child. It taps into all those other feelings that they have that are age appropriate and, in this case, also maybe situationally appropriate, with the one-year-old sibling.

So, just acknowledging what we know, not taking it any further in our minds, even though the reaction seems so strong that, as this mother says, sometimes she screams hysterically. That’s the cathartic release that children have, getting touched off. There are experts that believe that children carry with them that feeling of being born, of leaving this home that is the only home they knew and having to accept this whole new world, that maybe there’s even feelings around that that children need to process out.

So, we don’t know exactly, but there’s always a reason. Change, surprise, the unknown. Something that children can’t get a handle on, like an animal or bug. Those kinds of things can stir them.

There are all these studies now coming out about how accommodating a child’s fears or anxieties can actually exacerbate them, and how counselors are working with parents to help them calm their anxieties around children having these experiences. Because we do have a lot of power. And that’s easy to understand when we put ourself in a child’s shoes. These people that we’re looking to for guidance on whether we’re safe or not seem rattled themselves, seem upset, that just escalates our own feelings. Yikes, they’re showing me there’s danger here too. I don’t think this parent is doing that part so much, but I want to go over these details of what she is doing because there are some little nuances that might be getting in the way of her daughter processing these feelings out.

Again, I appreciate these new studies coming out around how accommodation is not helpful to children because that has been my own observational experience and integral in the way that I work with parents. I have a post on my website, janetlansbury.com, that discusses some of this and an experience that I had. It’s called The Single Answer to Many Common Parenting Concerns. The single answer is to really trust and allow children to process the feelings. Not trying to comfort them in an active way, like: “Oh, oh, it’s okay. It’s just a bug.” But, to support them to have these seemingly irrational or unreasonable feelings.

The way to do that… I’m going to take the examples this parent gave. She says, “She always loved playing on her trampoline but now won’t go near it. Seeds from a nearby tree fall onto it and she thinks they’re bugs.”

I would not try to coax her near it. I would not try to encourage her: “Oh, I don’t see anything there. I think it’s fine.” I would say, “Oh, those look like bugs to you. You don’t like when the seeds are on there. That’s uncomfortable for you, because it feels like those are bugs.”

So actually acknowledging and reflecting in a way that encourages her to feel afraid about the seeds. I know this seems unhelpful, but that’s the scary leap that we have to do as parents to really be able to let our children, and even want our children to go there rather than trying to make it better, accommodate it in some way, talk our child out of it, invalidate it. (And I don’t think this parent is doing any of that.) Instead, to want them to go there and be afraid of the seeds, if that’s what’s really going on.

So when my child shares those things with me about the seeds, those are precious shares coming from her. Those are going to help me to help her to work through this, because now I can go to those specifics with her. “Oh, yeah. The seeds too. Those look like bugs, too, and you don’t like those either. Yeah.” Right there, I’m still going to let my child be the one to decide if she wants to go closer.

Interestingly, if we’re willing to go there all the way with her and connect with her: “You don’t like those seeds because those remind you of bugs.”  Sometimes children will actually go on the trampoline. It’s this amazing thing that happens when we’re willing to hear their feelings and encourage them to have them.

So, I would just leave that as it is and acknowledge, empathize with that, and want her to share that with me and let that happen in her time, in her way.

She says, “She loves playing dress up, but she’s given up her beloved sandals because she’s afraid bugs will get on her feet.” That’s another one to acknowledge if she brings it up. I’m not going to try to push the sandals or coax her into the sandals or tell her I think it’s going to be okay, the bugs won’t get on her feet. I wouldn’t tell her any of that. I would go with what she’s feeling and just acknowledge.

This is easier as the parent because it’s more clear. Our role is more clear. It’s challenging for us because it is kind of scary for us to go there and feel we’re going to make it worse. It’s scary in that sense for us, but it’s clear and simple what we do. We trust and we see these tidbits she’s sharing with us as gold that we want to encourage her to share.

So the bugs getting on her feet, “Ooh, you feel like those holes in the sandals let bugs in. What does that feel like?” Maybe she’ll say it tickles. Just acknowledge what she’s saying, but be curious, be interested, be open to those gems that she’s offering about her feelings, knowing yourself that this is very likely loaded with a lot of healthy situational and developmental feelings she needs to process out. Even if she screams. Especially if she screams. That’s the catharsis happening right before our eyes. It’s okay for children to go there. It’s safe. It’s the best thing they can do.

We’re obviously not trying to scare her. We’re not trying to make her have those feelings. We’re just letting life happen. We’re letting her process them in the way that they come, always giving her that message that it’s safe to connect with those deepest fears inside of us.

She says, “She even begs me to roll the windows up in the car because she’s terrified one will come through the window.” There, I would consider if you need the windows to be open and it feels safe for you to allow her to scream, I would not necessarily accommodate her there: Oh, we got to roll the windows up. Because that is an example of where this can veer into accommodating.

I guess also, if her sandals were the only things available, say you were out and then suddenly she says I don’t want these sandals anymore because the bugs, that would also be a case where I wouldn’t be searching for sneakers or something else for her. I would get close, I would fully acknowledge, “Oh gosh, that fear came up about the bugs.” Or, “You don’t like those bugs that might get on your feet. That’s so hard.” And take that as a time to let my child process.

Maybe even this would happen in the car. Maybe you need that air to be coming in. You don’t want to close the window for her. That would be more of a time that I would consider facing the music, allowing your child to have her feelings. Because you don’t want to give her the message that you’re trying to avoid them, which makes her feel like this is even more scary because it’s something my parent is telling me I need to avoid. That’s the key here.

She says, “My husband and I have done things like acknowledge her fear, ‘I see that bug is scaring you.’”

Yes, but really going with that. Connecting with her, not just saying words, “I see that bug is scaring you,” but, “Whoa, that’s really scaring you!” If that’s what’s clear. “Yikes, you don’t want that to get on your feet. Whoa, yeah, that’s really hard.”

So we’re meeting our child and her feelings, we’re not analyzing them or just saying words to acknowledge them.

And then, this mother says, “…and holding bugs myself to demonstrate they aren’t scary or bad through action versus words.” That very reasonable example of see, I have bugs on me and I’m okay, these aren’t scary, that is not understanding that the venting she’s doing here is really, really important and probably not specifically about bugs, actually. Just like the way children will seem to get very, very upset about the wrong color cup or that this food touched that food. It’s not that they have a deep seated fear about food contaminating each other or that a certain cup is the only thing that can touch their lips. It’s that they’re getting tipped off to vent important feelings. And that’s what’s going on here. So, I wouldn’t be showing her that bugs are okay, because they’re okay with you.

She says, “I’ve tried to help her find solutions to deal with this fear where I ask her to take a big, deep breath, tell me there is a bug and that she would like to walk away from it.” I would not do that because again, this isn’t about her needing a solution. This is about her needing to share. There is no solution to bugs in our greater environment and that isn’t what this is really about. It’s about feelings, not facts and realities.

Now, if you don’t see improvement after following the steps that I recommend, then I would absolutely consider getting the advice of a mental health professional.

Again, this parent’s intentions are spot on and wonderful.

Any step that is about making the feelings better, fixing them, helping her avoid them is going to do the opposite of what we want to help her do, which is, as this parent says beautifully at the end of her note, helping her to work through it. I hope some of that helps.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

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