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Toddler Scared of Bugs

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Dr. Laura,

My toddler is scared of bugs. I've never shown to her that I don't like bugs. There aren't many bugs where we live but we are visiting my parents and there are lots of bugs here. She doesn't want to be near them. She's also scared of these squiggly things on the ground that fall from the tree. I'm just worried why she's so fearful. I hope my yelling that I've occasionally done in the past hasn't made her scared of things. That's why I'm asking u.
Thanks. J


Dear J --

Humans are biologically, evolutionarily, designed to fear bugs. What I mean is that the humans who were afraid of bugs and snakes and heights and fire and strange loud noises and predators like dogs were more likely to grow up and pass on their genes. The ones who were not afraid of bugs may have been a bit less anxious, but some of them were bitten by tarantulas or scorpions or whatever and did not live to pass on their genes. This also explains toddler food dislikes. Toddlers won't eat unfamiliar foods. The more adventurous ones were more likely to eat poison berries and not live to pass on their genes. Make sense?

In fact, toddlers are known for developing strange fears, suddenly and out of the blue. The bathtub (they might go down the drain), the vacuum cleaner (it might suck them up), elevators (slight, temporary, claustrophobia, which was also adaptive for our ancestors.) So you did not cause this.

In general, if a child is very fearful, she may be telling you she needs to cry and release those fears. You do this by noticing when your child seems contrary and out of sorts, and kindly, compassionately, letting her know that your arms are a safe place for her to feel and release those big feelings: "Sweetie, you seem out of sorts. Do you just need to cry? Or are you mad? I am right here. You can give me all those cries and sads and mads. Everybody needs to cry sometimes..." Keep eye contact with her, which helps her feel safe enough to access her own deeper emotions. Children who are releasing fear often sweat and tremble and kick, so if you need to move a bit away so as not to get hurt, that's fine, but keep as much contact as you can, including voice contact, to provide a calm "holding environment." You don't have to solve anything, you are your child's witness and safe haven. You will find that after a good cry, your toddler will be much more pleasant, and notably less fearful, although she still may not love bugs.

Of course, yelling is not good for little ones, as you know, and can make kids more generally fearful as well as erode the parent-child relationship. So it's worth working on how to stay calmer with your toddler -- we all know toddlers can drive parents crazy. Check out this article: "Steps to Stop Yelling at Your Child."

To help your daughter over her fear of bugs, stay calm when she sees a bug and is scared, because your demeanor will communicate that there is nothing to be scared of, even though you understand her fear and don't make her feel bad for being afraid:

"That's a bug. Do you feel a little scared? It's ok, he won't hurt us. Come, let me hold your hand, and we will watch it. See him crawl? There he goes. Bye bye bug!"

If she's scared, by all means pick her up and hold her, and if she wants to move away from the bug, or have you remove it, that's fine, too. But just keep your attitude calm, and communicate that you understand she's a bit frightened, but you will always keep her safe and in any event, the bug is not dangerous. That kind of learning is how we learn to manage our instinctive fears.

Dr. Laura

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