Conquering Irrational Fears

When a child fears dogs, how should a parent react?

By Sarah Hamaker

Q: Our six-year-old daughter is afraid of dogs, has been since she was a toddler. We’ve tried to introduce her to nice dogs, but that makes her scream with terror. We’ve also tried talking to her about her fear, but that hasn’t helped at all. Several friends have dogs, but she cries if we go visit them. What can we do?

A: I feel your pain. Some kids just have these fears that no amount of adult intervention can erase. Only the child can get rid of the fear.

My two boys, now ages 4 and 6, have had an irrational fear of costumed characters, like Curious George, Easter bunny and the Chick-fil-A cow, for years. By fear, I mean tears, screaming in terror, trembling, trying to climb up into our arms, kind of reactions. Only recently has this eased (and with it my reason for not going to Disney World!)

The best way to face such a fear is not to force the child to consider all the valid reasons why the fear is not rational by talking about it, but by ignoring it. You don’t cater to the fear by avoiding all contact with dogs, but you don’t force your daughter to pet every friendly dog you encounter, either.

We didn’t stop going to parades or Easter egg hunts because we might have a close encounter of the costumed-character kind. Instead, we went, but expected to have to comfort—albeit briefly—the boys if they caught sight of the Easter bunny. Now, the boys are not completely terrified of such encounters, and are learning how to manage their fears themselves.

Don’t try to make her give up her fear of dogs, and don’t cater to her fear, either. Also stop talking to her about her fear. Sometimes, children think their fears are more valid if Mommy and Daddy talk about the fears a lot.

In short, make her fear no big deal, such as, “Some children do have a fear of dogs” type attitude. Don’t let her fear dictate your plans, but don’t make her stay in a room with a rambunctious dog, either. Have the middle ground of visiting friends with dogs, but allowing your daughter to play in a room without the dog while there.

Stay calm about it, and matter-of-fact, and she will probably outgrow her fear or learn how to manager it herself. Either way, she’ll be able to handle any encounters of the canine kind.

Do you have a parenting question you would like to see answered on this blog? Email Sarah with Parenting Question in the subject line. Sign up for Practical Parenting, Sarah’s a free, monthly e-newsletter with commonsense advice on child rearing, by visiting www.parentcoachnova.com and clicking on the newsletter tab.

Sarah Hamaker is a certified Leadership Parenting Coach™ through the Rosemond Leadership Parenting Coach Institute. She’s also a freelance writer and editor. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.parentcoachnova.com and follow her on Twitter @novaparentcoach.

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