by Eileen Paris, Ph.D., M.F.C.C. and Thomas Paris, Ph.D., M.F.C.C.
Q. My daughter, Maddison, turned 2 in January. Last summer, she developed a fear of bugs (a fly landed on her in the car, and she has been PETRIFIED ever since!). Now she is afraid of any and all kinds of bugs . . . she saw a fly over the weekend and then every speck of dust became a fly or bug to her. Friday she discovered her shadow and is afraid of that!!! We reassure her but I'm not sure what else to do. Any suggestions?
A. When Maddison sees a bug, her sympathetic nervous system is aroused. The nervous system of flight or fight. She needs help to regain a calm, emotional state. This can occur through empathic attunement and reflection.
Jackie, try to put yourself in her emotional shoes, being alarmed and frightened of bugs and now anything that feels like "bug". Yikes! So when Maddison expresses fear, mirror her feelings accurately, matching her emotional intensity with responses like, "Maddison, I see you are scared, bugs scare you, and stuff that looks like bugs, I see! Big fear!" This style of response -- seeing and hearing, gives little ones a way of recognizing that you are with them, that you "get it," which a calming experience in itself.
Then staying in contact, some eye contact, gentle touch, "Maddison, I'm here, I'll keep you safe. It's ok. I'll take care of you., etc." As her calmness returns, you can clarify her information. Obviously, this part will have more meaning as she matures. (She is in a process of rapid maturation, kids grow so much between 2 and 3.)
When you stay in contact and mirror -- kids have the best chance of transforming their individual primitive reactions, and developing a sense of self that they can depend on for soothing and calming. Ideally, if you respond to Maddison this way, she will be able eventually to calm and sooth herself when her fear of bugs arises. It may take awhile, because her anxiety rises so fast and so strong. Hang in there, new learning takes practice, especially when the neural circuits - bug/big fear/big danger have already been learned. They have to be modified by new learning, and lots of practice.