Most children love the zoo, but there are some children who virtually tremble at the sight of animals. In most cases, a child’s fear of animals is naturally outgrown. But there are also cases where fears persist into the teenage and adult years, and even become lifelong phobias.
How can parents help their children manage or overcome fears of animals or fear of a particular animal?
Accept the Child’s Fear and Empathize
It’s important that parents try to see animals from their kids’ eyes. A Labrador puppy may not look intimidating from an adult’s point of view, but the pet can easily be the height of a 2 or 3 year old. A domesticated cat may rarely bare her claws — but kids can still feel fear about how sharp they look. And farm animals are usually a bit more frightening – just think of a chicken suddenly flying towards you. Let your child know that his or her fear is understandable: “Yes, horses are really big! Even though I’m sure they’re pretty friendly, they certainly look scary, ” or “I see you’re scared of the puppy. That’s O.K. You don’t know him yet so you’re right to be a little wary. Let’s get to know him better and see if we can trust him.”
Show a Calm and Relaxed Disposition among Animals
Young kids often take their cues from the adults around them, so model how to properly approach and pet an animal. Smile and act relaxed. Whatever you do, don’t fool around and pretend that you are being attacked. It may be funny to you, but it’s likely not amusing to your terrified boy or girl.
Visit a Vet, an Animal Shelter or a Pet Store
One way you can lessen a child’s fear of animals is to get them into a setting where interacting with animals is just part of the day. Let them interview your local vet, who may be invited to provide interesting animal trivia that usually gets little kids hooked. You can also take them to an animal shelter or a pet store and explain to them that animals do need a loving home too. If they can see animals as creatures that need care and support just like they do, they might feel a little less intimidated by the little critters.
Consider Self-Help Treatments for Fear and Phobias
If the child is panicky around animals, give him or her Rescue Remedy when visiting zoos or people who have pets. Rescue Remedy is a Bach Flower mixture available in health food stores and online. To help the child eventually get over the fear, you can use other remedies in the Bach system such as Mimulus for phobias and Rock Rose for panic. In this case, give the child these remedies four times daily until he or she no longer expresses fear of animals.
Also, consider teaching your child EFT (emotional freedom technique) – a form of accupressure that can often heal fears and phobias. More information on EFT can be found online and throughout this site.
Aim for Gradual Desensitization
If your child is really upset at the sight of animals, then go slowly and patiently. For example, bring home some library books about the animal or animals that your child fears. There are beautiful picture books that teach everything there is to know about pets and farm animals, explaining the parts of the animal’s body, the food the animal eats and the way it typically behaves. Next, show some educational films on the same kinds of material – i.e. a film about cats or dogs or horses or zoo animals. Next, take them to a pet store where the animals are contained in locked cages. Eventually, try a small section of a local zoo. Then, take your child to LOOK AT a petting farm – don’t make the child participate by walking among the animals and actually touching them. Instead, have the child watch other children having fun with the animals. Eventually, you might be able to assist your child within the petting zoo itself (not on the first visit, but maybe after several such visits). You might be able to bring some goldfish into your home after awhile. Invite a friend to bring a puppy on a leash to your house and let your child observe the animal without having to be close to it. Only when the child is comfortable and wants to get closer should you help the youngster come near the pet while it is still on the leash. Eventually see if you can help the child to touch the dog while you are holding the animal – you can hold a puppy in your arms and get tyour child to touch the tail today, the body tomorrow, and who knows, perhaps the head in a few weeks. After the child gets to know the puppy, you might let the animal walk about without the leash and just let the child watch (possibly while sitting in your lap!). Soon, the child will want to walk freely where the dog is and eventually, if all goes well, play happily with the dog like other kids do.
Consider Professional Help
If your child is not responding to your interventions and is suffering from fear of animals that impedes with his or her daily life (i.e. child is afraid to go to school or other places), then consult a child psychologist. Mental health professionals can help people of all ages overcome their fears and live a more relaxed and happy life!