Dear Kid Whisperer,
My granddaughter has an irrational fear of almost every animal and insect. What can I do to ease this fear? -Jon, Des Moines, Iowa
It usually isn’t very efficient to use words to ease fears. I’m sure you’ve probably tried that (and there’s nothing wrong with trying) but it probably didn’t work, which why you are asking me, The Patron Saint of the Last Resort, for advice.
Think of yourself in this situation as needing to be an encouraging disciplinarian. Your granddaughter, as is true with all kids, has one foot in the world of the known and safe and one foot in the world of the unknown and strange. Right now, animals are in the world of the unknown and strange, and she is recoiling from them. It is your job to encourage your child to explore the unknown and strange while keeping one foot in the known and safe. It is also your job to make sure she does not cause a problem while recoiling: her feelings, including fear, in this case, are never wrong. But causing a problem is not OK, even if it is as a result of a feeling (like fear).
So, when an animal is present, showing interest in it and encouraging her to be near it and observe it models proper engagement with the world and encourages her to healthily take a step into the unknown and strange. She can recoil in any way that does not cause a problem. So if, for example, she were refusing to walk to a house five doors down the street where you are going to hang out with family friends and she is going to have a playdate with someone else’s grandkids, and she is refusing to leave the house because she may see an animal on the way, this is how I would handle the situation:
Kid: I am not going to leave the house because I will be eaten by a ladybug or shark or both at the same time.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, my goodness. As you know, you will be completely safe from harm from animals on this trip. You can either walk like a big girl to the neighbor’s house you can fly.
Kid: I will not cooperate My life is not worth it.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, my goodness. Flying it is! (picking Kid up) Wheeeeee!
Kid Whisperer carries Kid to neighbor’s house, happily singing a jaunty tune the entire way and not responding to the inevitable temper tantrum that will ensure.
Kid Whisperer (as he crosses the threshold of the neighbors house and places kid on the ground): Play like no one’s watching!
Repeat this when you walk home.
Kid will notice that she was not eaten by the local animals of the cul-de-sac, making her slightly less afraid of animals next time. You can call this real-life and functional aversion therapy. This is how we all should learn. Just by being required to live life, we slowly learn that life is not quite as scary as we thought it was.
Once she is at the neighbor’s house, and is playing with the neighbor kid, if the kid wants to go outside, but she would rather stay inside because she is afraid of the terrors of the outdoors, that’s fine because not playing outside doesn’t cause a problem, and not causing a problem is the skill you want your granddaughter to learn. There’s a good chance that your granddaughter will never become the next Jack Hanna, but if you and the other adults around her act as encouraging disciplinarians, she also is unlikely to become someone no one wants to be around!