Overcoming Animal Phobia

Is your child’s reaction to a certain animal related to fear of the unknown, or a developmental stage or is it something more?

Many children love animals and have a special bond with their pets. However, not all children are as comfortable around animals as their peers.

A certain amount of fear around animals such as snakes or spiders is relatively common, even among adults. The fear of animals most often develops naturally at around age 3. As the child grows and develops, the fear slowly diminishes as they become more exposed to and familiar with different animals.

In some children however, fear of animals may grow to a state where it begins interfering with the child’s social activities, school performance or sleep.

Zoophobia or animal phobia is a class of specific phobias that is characterised by an extreme and irrational fear of any or all animals. It is normal to fear certain animals like bears or sharks as these fears would not normally hinder our daily lives. However for an animal phobic, simply knowing that an encounter with a specific animal can invoke so much fear, will lead them to change their plans just to avoid the possibility of encountering that animal.

Symptoms of Animal Phobia in Children

Does you child exhibit any of the following symptoms?

  • Irrational fear of animals, even if not dangerous or threatening;
  • Avoiding places where the animal may be found;
  • Anxiety or stress in the presence of or due to the thought of animals;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Crying;
  • Clinging to a parent;
  • Throwing a tantrum, or becoming irritable;
  • Hiding.

Animal phobia can develop in a number of ways:

  • An unpleasant past experience: that involved a particular animal, or witnessing such an event. For example, if a small child is swooped and attacked by a magpie, it may lead to an increased possibility of developing a phobia of birds.
  • Over generalisation and fear of animals: over generalisation is a way of thinking that lets someone create general beliefs, based on only one event. For example, a girl witnesses her neighbour being attacked by a dog, and then believes that all dogs attack people.
  • Learned behaviour: some people learn their animal phobia from their parents. For example, if a mother acts nervously when a spider runs across the floor, their child may do the same.

What Not To Do

Most parents think they are helping, but pushing a child too quickly can have the opposite effect:

  • Playfully teasing the child about their fear;
  • Forcing their child to touch the animal;
  • Ignoring the fear, passing it off as a “phase” if the child has been fearful for more than a few months.

Overcoming Animal Phobia in Children

Therapists will help your child to overcome frightening phobias through a range of strategies. The strategies may depend on your child’s age, emotional tolerance and ability to engage with others; some of the techniques that may be used to help your child overcome their fear include:

  • Talking about the fear in a reassuring way;
  • Helping the child to make a list of frightening situations related to their animal phobia;
  • Asking the child to order these situations from least scary to most scary;
  • Slowly exposing the child to the least scary situations, and working their way up to the scariest;
  • Teaching the child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises;
  • Encouraging the child to question the negative thoughts about why the animal is scary.

The good news is that animal phobia in children can be managed, and most can be cured. Don’t let animal phobia interfere with your family’s life any longer; by starting treatment today, you and your child will be on the way to living the life you want!

Authors:  Susanne Gilmour and Melanie Green 

 

References:

  • Ost, L., Ollendick, T. H., & Davis, T. E. (2009). Intensive Treatment of Specific Phobias in Children and Adolescents. Cognitive & Bahavioral Pactice, 16 (3): 294-303. DOI: 10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.12.008.
  • Garcia-Palacios, A., Hoffman, H., Carlin, A., Furness, T. A., & Botella., C. (2002). Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Spider Phobia: A Controlled Study. Behaviour Research and Therapy 40.983-993. DOI: 0005-7967/02/$.