My Child is Scared of Animals. What Should I Do?

March 17, 2020
For many children, the experience of having a pet is one of a kind, while others miss out on it out of fear. In this article, discover what to do if your child is scared of animals so they can enjoy the diversity of nature.

Not all children react the same way when they see a dog or another pet. Some want to pet them and feel greatly attracted to them. Others prefer to stay away, thus showing that they’re scared of animals. There’s no specific reason why this happens. Sometimes, it can be due to a previous bad experience or that they’ve been taught that an unknown animal can be dangerous. Also, there are children who simply feel intimidated by the animal’s strange figure.

“There are more active and adventurous children, while others are calmer and less open to new experiences. The latter feel more stress when faced with the new and the unknown,” says Dr. Tracy Dennis, of the Department of Psychology at Hunter College.

Although fear is a defense mechanism that keeps children safe, it’s best to teach them to show respect and be cautious instead of a fear of animals that keeps them from experiencing the enriching experience of discovering them.

How to help children who are scared of animals

Here are some tips that can help parents help their children take that step between fear and respect:

Try to understand the fear

A family talking.
Talk to your children about their fear to create a strategy to encourage them.

Fear is irrational. Therefore, forcing children not to be scared of animals won’t help.

It’s best to try to understand what causes the fear and seek a strategy to help them deal with it. For example, if your child is scared of a dog due to its size, don’t suggest them to approach a big one. When you’re with a small and easy-going dog, approach it first and then encourage your child to follow with your protection.

Teach them to approach the animal

Children may approach the animal awkwardly or with excessive emotion and scare it, which usually causes a violent reaction that will scare the child even more.

The best thing is to guide them in every step and carefully choose the words you use. It’s best to avoid words that alert them such as “Be careful so it doesn’t bite you” or “Don’t get too close, as it can be dangerous”. Use positive reinforcement, such as “Approach the animal with love” or “Be kind to the animal”.

Begin by teaching your child that you always have to ask permission from its owner to approach an animal. Then, it’s better to allow your children to let the animal smell their hand before trying to pet it. Both dogs and cats feel more comfortable after inspecting the smell of a new person.

Try to distract the animal by stroking its face. Then, invite your child to touch it from one side, preferably not by the tail, to avoid scaring the animal. The animal’s face can be intimidating for the child.

This article may interest you: The Benefits of Having a Pet in the Family

Avoid puppies

A family with their pet dog.
Puppies are more temperamental and less predictable than their adult counterparts.

Young animals are more unpredictable than adults. For them, playing can be biting, scratching, or jumping over people. What for an animal can be a gesture of trust, joy, and love, can seem a hostile gesture to a child.

Learning the language of animals

Pets have a unique way of communicating with people. Learning that language and teaching it to your child can be very useful in facilitating an encounter.

For example, Linda Case, author of the book Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends, states that “An open mouth with lips back, tongue out, and a relaxed face is an invitation to interact”.

Teach your child to interact with animals

A baby petting a dog.
Your child may be scared of animals because they don’t know how to interact with them. Teach them how to do it and you’ll help them lose their fear.

Just like puppies, children are unpredictable. That fear can turn into excitement once the first encounter with the animal is successful. With that emotion, their actions may frighten or bother the animal. Explain to your child that they shouldn’t push the animal, grasp their fur, or hold them by the tail.

This article may interest you: How Can Kids Overcome Their Fear of the Dark?

Don’t bring a pet home

Many parents believe it’s a good idea to bring a pet home. Maybe, over time, your child and the pet will get used to each other, but it’ll take many days of unnecessary stress.

Wait until your child is ready. Some people keep the pet in a room until the child begins to trust them, but this isn’t advisable either. The pet can become aggressive if you do this, as they’ll understand that their role isn’t to socialize.