Four year old Maya loves visiting the local playground, and particularly enjoys digging in the sandpit.
On one visit, she gets bitten by a green ant. Shocked by the pain, she cries and seeks comfort from her mother.
The visit that started out as fun ends in a tantrum when an upset Maya refuses to put her feet on the ground, so her mother carries her to the car.
The next time her mum suggests visiting the playground, Maya screams and begs not to go. Her worried mother wonders how she can best help Maya overcome her fear …
Children are often afraid of insects including spiders, cockroaches, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, flies, and moths to name a few.
Maya’s response is understandable since she experienced a painful bite; however some children will have a complete meltdown if they even see an insect.
Fear is designed to keep us safe from real threats and dangers, however it becomes a problem when it is out of proportion to a perceived threat.
In Maya’s case, her fear of ants has developed to the point that she will do anything to avoid them – even giving up on her favourite outing to the park.
As parents, we often want to help our children by encouraging them to face their fears. Maya’s mum could have insisted on returning to the playground, but this approach was unlikely to succeed.
What is a Phobia?
Maya may be suffering from a phobia – an excessive or irrational fear reaction where an individual has relentless dread of an object or situation.
Children with an insect phobia (known as Entomophobia) feel anxiety even if they understand that many insects don’t pose a threat. Some children fear insects or “bugs” in general, while others are afraid of a particular type of insect such as spiders.
One of the best ways to overcome children’s phobias is with Exposure Therapy – where they are gradually and repeatedly exposed to the feared object, but in a safe and controlled way.
A form of exposure therapy known as virtual reality can help children quickly triumph over their insect phobia (Botella, Carmen Juan, Baños, Raya, Botella, & Rey, 2005).
How Does Exposure Therapy Work?
The child sees an image that is a visualisation of the real world, as well as a series of virtual elements (such as insects) that are super-imposed on the real world. Ingenious!
This approach works in two ways.
Firstly, it is used to evoke the particular fear and secondly, it then systematically reduces the level of fear.
One study investigated whether virtual reality (VR) could help an individual overcome their fear and loathing of cockroaches. The results were impressive in that after VR, the person was able to approach and kill live cockroaches.
While not all children with a fear of insects will develop a phobia, there are some simple steps parents can take to help their children.
Parents can begin with validating their fear by saying something like “I know spiders really scare you”. Then you both can look at some pictures, so children are gently exposed to the feared insect. With practice and patience, this can be effective for some children.
It’s important to realise that fears don’t tend to go away by themselves. They need to be addressed but help is readily available so Maya can enjoy sandpit play once more.
Botella, C., Carmen Juan, M., Baños, R., Raya, M., Botella, V., & Rey, B. (2005). Mixing Realities? An Application of Augmented Reality for the Treatment of Cockroach Phobia. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behavior and society. 8(2):162-171. DOI:10.1089/cpb.2005.8.162