Dear Dr. Debbie,
My soon to be eight-year-old has developed a phobia of insects over the past year. This is the time of year we’d usually be hunting fireflies but not only is she not interested in going out in the evening to look for them with me, she shrieks if she sees one, or any insect, during the day time. The cicada infestation, by the way, was no picnic. She hardly stepped foot outside for a month.
Don’t Bug Me
I’m sure it’s been a tough year for your daughter. Last year at this time we were still recovering from a dashed expectation that in-person school would resume before summer break. Then we looked forward to fall, only to be forced to accept that “safer at home” was going to be the rule for school in the fall. Then again for the spring. For a child, whose school days should be full of lively interactions with friends, the outside world became forbidden and foreboding. The pandemic overshadowed everything.
Typically children go through developmental phases of being anxious when faced with specific situations. Sudden noises, the dark, strangers, and monsters all have a natural place in early childhood to draw a child closer to her protector, namely you. Your presence and reassurance became reliable patterns of putting your daughter at ease.
By the age of seven, real-life dangers play a larger role in her mind. Your reactions to the world at-large also may have become more tangible as she pieced together bits of world news, local restrictions, and continuing alterations to family life through a lens of “How’s Mom Handling This.” She knows enough about the world to understand some very big ideas such as contagion, death, and not-enough-money.
All this is to say that fears are a very normal part of childhood and of being human. Often an “irrational” fear – such as a fear of harmless fireflies – merely represents the very real fears we have of not feeling safe from the things than can indeed harm us.
Extra Comfort and Attention
An easy approach to the bug avoidance is to go along with it. Honor her concern with a comforting comment but move on with her day. This comes from a theory that if children see that their parents are okay, then they decide that they must be okay, too.
You can help to relieve her general level of anxiety by spending time with her doing stress-less activities. Here’s a list of 35 Fun, Stress-Relief Activities to Do With Kids https://wehavekids.com/parenting/30-Fun-Stress-Relief-Activities-to-Do-With-Your-Kids (published before the pandemic – which proves that stress has always been part of family life), including, play a card game or board game, fly a kite, color pictures, snuggle up together with a book, learn some yoga poses, watch a movie, do a jigsaw puzzle, or bake some muffins.
If you are thinking you don’t have time for some one-on-one, then you need to assess your time management and put limits on your outside obligations. There’s no time like the present to be present in the life of your child.
Children don’t like to be fearful. Let her know that you are always here to help her to feel safe. As long as your daughter’s real concerns are reduced, i.e. her world starts to feel more secure, you will probably notice a decline in her bug phobia. Maybe a beautiful butterfly catches her attention and she shares her delight with you. Or maybe she finds herself absorbed in a storybook adventure that has a friendly cricket character in it. Use these opportunities to point out to her how much she is enjoying the delicate beauty of one insect, or the enjoyable storyline of the other. Point out that the butterfly or the cricket is an insect, like a firefly or a cicada, and note the similarities.
Compliment her comfort and bravery as they occur. The goal is to have her connect positive feelings with these experience instead of anxious feelings. At the end of the day, remind her of how she felt and acted and how proud you are of her progress.
Remember, she’d rather not be fearful.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org. See the website for Zoom workshops for Girl Scouts and outdoor activities for families at the museum’s park.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.