Do you have a child that is terrified of animals? Maybe they can’t walk down the block because a cat is staring out the neighbor’s window, or they’re so scared of dogs that they run out of the room when any dog comes on the television. Kids of all ages can be afraid of animals, even the common ones they encounter regularly. In some cases, the kids can become comfortable with animals with time, but in other cases, a child’s fear of animals can paralyze him and make it hard to function. Dr. Thomas Ollendick, Director of the Child Study Center and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Virginia Tech, lays out these 10 steps to help your child’s fear of animals.
Recognize It’s Normal
Fear is a very appropriate emotion to have when it comes to kids interacting with animals. Some adults even have a hard time interacting with some animals. Young children are hardwired to be afraid of unfamiliar things. As a child grows, they gain knowledge about animals and how they behave. They develop self-confidence to deal with an animal’s unpredictable nature. Knowing their fear is normal will help you navigate the best way to approach it as a parent.
Decide If You Should Intervene
There are three main factors to consider when deciding whether or not to assist your child with overcoming their fear: frequency, intensity, and duration. If they’re only a little nervous walking through the zoo, there’s a good chance they will grow out of the discomfort naturally. However, it’s important to intervene if your child’s fear seriously affects their life – like their ability to go to school, play outside, or visit a friend or relative’s house.
Hear Them Out
Ollendick recommends that you listen to your child before tackling their fear. You can ask them to tell you why animals scare them so much. Use open-ended questions like, “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 they can express what they’re afraid of in a more specific way, it will help you understand the fear and work towards beating it together.
Validate the Fear
Before you even begin to help them conquer the fear, you must assure them that you understand why they are scared. Your child needs to know that you understand that they are afraid and that there is nothing wrong or shameful about them being afraid. Ollendick cautions parents not to reinforce the fear by encouraging the child to avoid the animal he fears. Instead, try something like, “I know that dogs can make you feel scared because they’re big and like to be close to you. But they 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 about it. Teach your child that they can overcome the fear by teaching them how to face it. Let them know that you know it can be tricky, but they can make the fear go away if they are brave. Point to examples from their past when they overcome something else that made them nervous or scared to remind them that they can face these challenges.
Break the Fear Down
If your child is afraid of dogs, letting one come up and lick him with no preparation will probably end in tears. Set up a step-by-step process that helps your child get comfortable with dogs as time goes on. First, show them pictures of dogs, move on to reading books together about dogs, then get them a stuffed dog to play with. When you see that your child can talk about dogs without fear, take them to look at a dog behind a fence, so they still feel safe. Slowly move on to putting them in the same room as a dog, then sitting next to a dog, and when they’re ready, petting a dog.
Develop a motivation and reward system to help your child face their fear. It can be as simple as a sticker on a chart or earning “fun time.” Rewarding your kid will show them that you are overcoming the fear together and know they can succeed. When you recognize their success, you let them know that you understand what they’re going through.
Make It Exciting
You don’t want your child to view this process as a chore, punishment, or something they are forced to do. Keep them excited by giving them high fives or telling them how brave they are when they sit next to a dog without running away. Teach them to use their avid imaginations to give them courage instead of making them scared. Help them identify with their favorite superhero, and allow them to wear a cape when they’re around animals to boost their confidence.
If Necessary, Consider Professional Help
If you share the same fear as your child, or if everything you’ve tried to help them isn’t working, it might be time to ask a professional for help. According to Ollendick, this is especially important if the fear really impairs their ability to function normally and causes distress. A child psychologist will be able to help both you and your child navigate the fear and how to proceed.
Helping your child overcome their fear can be a slow process, so give it some time to work itself out. With some patience and encouragement, your child will gain confidence from the experience that will help make the journey worthwhile. When your child is ready to embrace animals and become more comfortable around them, bring them to Children’s Nature Retreat. We have cultivated an excellent summer camp program to educate, connect, promote positive emotions, and help foster children’s love for nature. A week with us includes shadowing one of our animal keepers, educational activities, interactions with the animals, and other fun activities. For more information, call (619) 320-4942 or click here!