Dear David Coleman: My four-year-old has an extreme fear of animals
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My four-year-old daughter has developed extreme fears of all animals. Every animal is a problem for her; even in storybooks she can't look at pictures of kittens, ducks, dogs, anything. This has been developing over about a year and we kept thinking she'd grow out of it. In that time the only thing that changed for her was the birth of her brother (now nine months old), whom she loves. The animal phobia is becoming such a huge problem, as she can hardly walk down the street, or visit friends with pets. How can we deal with this?
David replies: I can only imagine how debilitating it must be for your daughter, and for your family, to have such an extreme and wide-ranging fear of animals. While most of us may be familiar with a child having a phobia about one specific type of animal, it is much more rare to find that phobia extending to all animals.
From the information you provide, there doesn't seem to be any specific incident, or incidents, which occurred that might have frightened your daughter. So, in more typical circumstances, a child may have had a fright from a dog barking near their face, or getting a serious scratch from a cat's claws, or even witnessing someone else being hurt or attacked by an animal. This anxiety then grows and extends to all dogs or all cats.
Because of the overwhelming nature of your daughter's fears, and the vast extent of them, I'd suggest that you go to meet with a child psychologist who specialises in the treatment of phobias.
In other circumstances, the most common treatment for phobias is graded exposure. In this form of intervention, the child works with the therapist to develop a "fear hierarchy". This is essentially a list of situations, involving their feared object, that cause increasing fear for the child.
So, for example with a dog phobia, seeing pictures of a dog might be mildly anxiety provoking, hearing a dog bark might be more anxiety provoking, seeing a dog in the distance perhaps is more frightening still, being close to a dog is scarier and touching a dog might be the most frightening thing imaginable.
The child then learns techniques to be able to calm themselves down and regulate their anxiety. Then the child and therapist start with the bottom of the hierarchy and use those relaxation techniques to reduce the child's anxiety while exposed to (in my example) pictures of a dog. When the child can successfully look at pictures without feeling anxious they move to the next step on the hierarchy and repeat the process of exposing the child to the feared situation while calming themselves.
However, because your daughter is already terrified of pictures of animals, and because she is afraid of all animals, and because she is comparatively young, at age four, for this kind of cognitive behavioural approach, it might be very hard to use this kind of approach with her.
While I do a lot of work with children, about anxieties in general, I rarely do graded exposure work with children who have specific phobias. Even though I rarely meet situations in this column, that I feel at a loss to be able to suggest some kind of help for, this is one of those situations where I really do feel that I wouldn't have the expertise to help your daughter.
In the short term, until you can find someone who can help you directly, you will have to rely on your own assurance and confidence, in the presence of animals, to be able to project an air of calm, and to role model, for your daughter that it is possible to cope with being around animals.
Children do rely on us to gauge the emotional temperature for them. They look to us to see how we are reacting in situations to guide their own reaction. So, with anxiety especially, it is helpful for children to see that we appear calm, in control and confident, in circumstances where they might be anxious otherwise.
So, when animals are present, it might help to encourage your daughter to look you in the eye, while you ask her "do I look scared?" (assuming you don't look scared!). Use your presence to reassure her that she is OK, and use your calming skills to soothe her distress.
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