Bees and other creepy crawlies can elicit strong emotions in children. In this National Geographic article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, and Pavan K. Madan, MD, discuss how to help them overcome their fears.
Rhiannon Giles Durham’s 11-year-old daughter has a common fear of bees and spiders: cautious because of the sting-and-bite potential but recognizing that if the critters are treated with respect, they likely pose little danger. But Durham’s six-year-old son is terrified of all bugs (except for butterflies): Just the sight of benign critters like gnats or flies sends him running.
Bugs are everywhere! In fact, a 2016 study from North Carolina State University found that the average American home shares space with up to a hundred species of bugs. “We are surrounded by them,” says entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice, author of Ants: Workers of the World. “If you can find out what they’re doing there and learn more about them, your world will become a more vibrant, exciting place.”
Whether your child tries to murder all the innocent bees or freaks out over butterflies, understanding why kids behave the way they do can help parents not only conquer their child’s fears, but show them how important bugs are.
Why do kids fear bugs?
Although a healthy fear of a critter that stings or bites makes sense, a kid’s total aversion to a tiny thing that means them no harm can be frustrating. But experts say this fear has likely been hardwired in our brains.
“Fear is a very basic human emotion that serves a protective role from an evolutionary perspective,” says adult and child psychiatrist Rashmi Parmar, MD, with Mindpath Health.
Essentially, our brains alert us to any perceived danger to keep us safe. Parmar says that can trigger the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response, which releases the stress hormone cortisol. The resulting increased heart rate and extra blood flow to muscles helped our ancestors fight off or flee from threats—and will likely kick in when any kind of bug is crawling toward your kid.
What can fear of bugs look like?
Surprisingly, infants and toddlers often aren’t as afraid of bugs as older children since they haven’t yet learned that behavior. At this developmental stage, it’s more about curiosity and looking to those around them for clues “to understand if and how much they should adore or fear something,” says psychiatrist Pavan K. Madan, MD, who works with children, adolescents, and adults at Mindpath Health.
“Strategies involving distraction work the best,” Madan advises. Showing infants or toddlers another object or tickling them may be enough to divert their attention away from the bug without scaring them. It might also be worth giving kids an extra snuggle so they know they have nothing to fear.
Although a healthy aversion to bugs is normal, Parmar says parents should be on the lookout for long-term anxiety that impacts daily activities, for instance if a child refuses to go on an outdoor field trip or play outside. That’s when a mental health professional should probably be consulted.
Keeping kids from bugging out
Exposing kids early to nature is a great way to prevent a fear of bugs from ever taking hold. “This helps them learn about bugs and their function in nature and may reduce excessive anxiety at a later stage,” Madan says.
But if a child does exhibit an aversion to bugs, acknowledging a child’s fear—no matter how irrational you might think it is—is the first step toward overcoming it.
Work gradually with especially fearful children. Start by talking about bugs or showing them videos, then placing the child in a situation in which the child understands that insects aren’t a real threat. “Follow up by attempting to stand a few feet away from a bug in the home or in the backyard,” Parmar says. “The distance can be slowly reduced over time as tolerated by the child.”
That said, being overly reassuring might feed a child’s anxiety. The trick is to find a balance between reassurance and avoidance. It’s fine to point out bugs that you want children to be cautious of.