3 Tips for Coping with a Fear of Animals

petvet2
Image via Katie Hurley

A fear of animals is a very common childhood fear.  Sometimes a bad experience triggers a fear.  Witnessing a dog bite or being scratched by a cat can cause a child to fear animals that were once loved.  Other times, the fear develops gradually as kids grow.

Many children outgrow their childhood fears as they gain mastery and understanding, but some need help along the way.

It’s important to distinguish a fear from a phobia.  A fear of animals might send your child jumping into your arms when a dog passes by, but a phobia could prevent your child from going anywhere that animals might be.  Even the local park.  A phobia interferes with normal daily living and can trigger a panic attack. 

Fears often arise from the unknown.  Animals can be unpredictable, and unpredictability can be challenging for many children.  Kids often feel a lack of control over their day-to-day lives, and fear of the unknown can stem from feeling a lack of control.

Childhood fears are no laughing matter, and they should be taken seriously.  Fears can trigger nightmares or make falling asleep a more difficult task.  And anxiety related to specific fears can lead to stomachaches, headaches, and increased overall stress.

3 tips for coping with fear of animals:

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Image via iStock

Baby steps:

A common misconception about coping with childhood fears is that if kids simply confront the fears head on, they will learn to stop feeling so afraid.  This backfires more often than not.  Putting your dog-fearing child in a room full of unpredictable puppies, for example, won’t help your child gain mastery over the fear.  In fact, it might heighten the fear.

It’s better to take small steps toward confronting fears.  Start by looking at pictures of the animal that causes fears. Talk about what the animal looks like.  What parts are scary?  What parts might be friendly?

If you happen to have a friend with an older dog or cat, ask if your child can come by for a visit.  While puppies, kittens, and younger animals tend to move around a lot and pounce without warning, older animals are more likely to be still in the presence of kids. 

{ MORE: 5 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Nighttime Anxiety }

reading to child
Image via iStock

Become an expert:

Information is powerful.  When my daughter developed a fear of jellyfish after encountering a few in the water last summer, we took out books about jellyfish to understand them.  Several books and one documentary later, she recently spent time at the jellyfish touch tank at our local aquarium.

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Read books about the animal that scares your child.  Talk to people who know a lot about the animal.  Look for a documentary to see the animal in action. 

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Image via iStock

Play:

Play is the single best way for young children to gain mastery over their fears.  When children play, they are in control of what happens.  They can explore their fears in a safe environment.

Consider purchasing a “pet vet” kit or use what you have around the house to open an animal hospital.  Let your child play the role of the vet, while you bring all different kinds of stuffed animals in for treatment.

Create a play about animals or animal safety with your child.  Write the screenplay together, work on the scenery, and put on a performance with your other family members.

{ MORE: What to Do When Your Kid is Afraid of Everything }

Engage your child in a game of animal rescue.  This puts your child in the role of the hero as he helps trapped animals all around the house.

Does your child have a fear of animals?

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3 Tips for Coping with a Fear of Animals

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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