10 Steps to Help Your Child's Fear of Animals
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Your child can’t walk down the block because there’s a cat staring out the neighbor’s window and is so scared of dogs that he runs out of the room when a show about puppies comes on the television. Kids of all ages can be afraid of animals, even common animals that most of us encounter on a daily basis. In some cases, kids become more comfortable with animals with time. In other cases, though, a child’s fear of animals can paralyze him, leaving him unable to function. Dr. Thomas Ollendick, Director of the Child Study Center and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Virginia Tech, gives steps that parents can take to help their child overcome a fear of animals.
- Recognize that it’s normal. Fear is “a very appropriate emotion to have” when it comes to kids interacting with animals, says Ollendick. Young children are hardwired to be afraid of unfamiliar or unpredictable things. As a child grows, she gains knowledge of how animals “work” as well as self-confidence in being able to deal with their unpredictable nature. Handling her fear with this attitude will give you a calmer, more understanding angle to approach the issue from.
- Decide whether to intervene. Although it’s normal for young children to be afraid of animals, Ollendick explains that there are three main factors to take into account when deciding whether to give your child assistance in overcoming that fear: frequency, intensity, and duration. If he just gets a little nervous walking through the zoo, then there’s a good chance he’ll grow out of his discomfort naturally, without any extra help. However, if your child's fear seriously affects his life in any way—his ability to go to school, to go outside and play, or to visit a friend or relative’s house—it’s important to intervene.
- Hear him out. Decided it’s time to help your child tackle her fears? Ollendick recommends that you listen to your child before embark on the journey to conquering her fear. Encourage her to articulate why animals make her so scared. Ask open-ended questions like “I see that you seem to be afraid of the neighbor’s dog. Can you tell me about it? What are you afraid the dog will do? Has something happened to make you afraid?” If she can express what she's afraid of in a more specific way, it will give you clues as to how you can best help her confront her fear.
- Validate his fears. Yes, you’re trying to help your child overcome his fear of animals, but he has to feel that you understand where he’s coming from. Let him know that you understand that he’s afraid, and that there’s nothing wrong or shameful about his fear. It’s a fine line, however—Ollendick cautions parents not to reinforce the fear by encouraging the child to avoid the animal he fears. Respond with something like, "I know that dogs can make you feel scared because they're big and like to be close to you. But, dogs do that because they like you, and we'll work together to help you feel better around them."
- Empower your child. Kids often think that if they’re scared of animals, there’s nothing they can do to feel differently. Teach your child that even when you’re really afraid of something, you can overcome your fear by teaching yourself to face it. Admit that it’s tough, but tell him that if he can be brave, he can make his fear go away. Point to examples from his own past when he's overcome something that made him nervous or scared, like riding his bike solo for the first time, to remind him that he's able to face these challenges.
- Break it down. If your child is afraid of dogs, letting Fido come up and lick him right off the bat is probably going to end in tears. Instead, set up a step-by-step process that helps your child get more and more comfortable with dogs. First show him pictures of dogs, then read books together about dogs, and then get him a stuffed dog to play with. When you see that your child is able to talk about dogs without showing fear symptoms, let him see a dog behind a fence so that he feels completely safe. Take it slowly, progressing to being in the same room as a dog, sitting next to a dog, and when he's ready, petting a dog.
- Reinforce success. Work out a motivation and reward system to help your child to face her fears, whether it’s as simple as a sticker on a chart, earning “fun time” with a parent, or a tangible reward. When you recognize her success, you’re letting her know that you understand what she’s going through, says Ollendick. Rewarding your kid will show her that you both are in it together, and that you're confident that she can succeed.
- Make it exciting. You don’t want your child to view this process as a chore, or as something you’re forcing her to do. Get her pumped up by giving her high fives or telling her how brave she’s getting when she sits next to a dog without running away. One way to inspire a kid to confront her fears is to teach her to use that avid imagination to give her more courage instead of making her more scared. Help her identify with her favorite superhero, and let her wear a cape when she’s around animals to boost her confidence.
- Consider professional help. If you share the same fear as your child, or if you’ve tried to help him work through his fears and haven’t succeeded, it could be time get a professional involved. According to Ollendick, this is especially important if the fear really impairs the ability to function normally and causes distress. A child psychologist will be able to give both you and your child direction on how to proceed.
Helping your child to overcome her fear can be a slow process, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. With some patience and encouragement, your child will gain self-confidence from the experience that will make the journey entirely worthwhile.