Fear of creepy-crawlies doesn’t need to inhibit time in nature. With time, patience and a few tips, you can help kids overcome their fear of insects. They might even learn to love them!
Spending time outside with your children can sometimes bring its own set of obstacles: bad weather, physical challenges, latent fears. One of those fears that can come to the surface during direct interaction with nature is the fear of insects. Rational or irrational, it can be a very powerful force that can hinder their joy and cause reticence to go outside. Sometimes the fear is all-consuming and explosive, sometimes it is timid and paralyzing. Either way, it’s not something to be ignored. So how can we help our kids face and overcome their fear of insects?
I’m neither a psychologist nor an entomologist, but here are a few ideas you can try when helping your children learn to love insects, or at least have a healthy respect for them.
1. CHECK YOUR OWN REACTIONS / LANGUAGE
This one might be the hardest to do, but should perhaps be where you start. Using some self-analysis, think about how you personally react to insects. Do you panic when you find a spider in your house? Do you squish an ant if it walks across your foot? What happens when a fly, wasp or bee comes near? What language are you using? Think about what your kids might be picking up from your own feelings or fear-based language.
2. INTERACT WITH INSECTS FROM A DISTANCE
When easing your kids into positive interactions with insects, start from a distance. Try some of the following:
- Take photos of the insects you see. Taking photos can put your children in a position of power and give them an opportunity to look at the insect when they feel more comfortable. They can also zoom in and examine its different attributes.
- Look at pictures in a book. Your child may feel more comfortable examining an insect on paper first, giving them a chance to learn more about them in a 2-D experience, which may be less intimidating.
- Learn to identify different insects. Being able to identify a few insects may help your child feel more empowered and invested. Think about insects they are likely to encounter in their daily life and start there. For example: When at rest, butterflies tend to fold their wings back (“closed”), whereas moths tend to spread them out (“open”). On your next outdoor adventure, see if you can spy one or the other. This is also a good opportunity to talk about the difference between harmless and harmful insects, an important distinction for them.
- Check them out in a museum or nature center. Museum displays are eye-catching and informative and sometimes allow interaction while being separated by a window or plexiglass. It also allows them to observe an insect’s habitat up close without disturbing anything.
- Read a fictional book or watch an animated movie featuring insects. Books and movies can help your child connect to insects on an emotional level, from a perspective of fun and entertainment. This can be a good starting-point, and you can later relate those characters to real-life insects.
- Play with plastic insects. This can be a tactile experience that gives your child a chance to become familiar with an insect without fear of the insect reacting to their examination. While they’re playing with the toy, take the opportunity to gently ask more about their fear and find out why they dislike insects.
3. MAKE INSECTS INTERESTING
It might be harder to your child to fear an insect if it becomes a bit more interesting to them. Feed your child’s fascination and teach them fun facts about different insects:
- A bee’s wing beats 190 times per second.
- Caterpillars have 12 eyes.
- Butterflies taste with their feet.
- The honeybee has to travel 43,000 miles to collect enough nectar to make one pound of honey.
- Ants can lift and carry more than fifty times their own weight.
- The horsefly can fly up to 90 mph.
- There are close to a million species of insects around the world, with a possible 30 times that number yet to be discovered.
4. TALK ABOUT AND MODEL APPROPRIATE INTERACTION
Talk to your children about how to behave around insects, all by modeling appropriate behavior yourself (I know this can be hard!). A few things to keep in mind:
- Stay calm when an insect lands on you. If a wasp or bee lands on you, talk your children through the experience. “Oh, look at the pretty bee that just landed on me! He doesn’t really want to hurt me, but I don’t want him to be surprised or scared. I’m going to keep my body calm and my voice gentle until he is ready to leave.”
- Practice removing insects from your home. Using a cup and a piece of cardboard, show them an effective and harmless way to remove a fly or wasp from your house. A clear cup is best, so they can see just where the insect is and feel safer knowing that it can’t escape.
- Do nightly tick checks. It’s good practice to regularly check for ticks, making sure that a negative interaction with a tick doesn’t become worse!
- Identify harmful/harmless insects. Keep your kids informed about local insects so they understand the appropriate level of caution and what to do when they encounter them.
(Please take appropriate action when allergies or dangerous insects are involved!)
5. TALK ABOUT INSECTS’ IMPORTANCE IN THE ECOSYSTEM
Teach your kids about different insects’ roles in our lives. They may feel differently about an insect once they find out how important it is for our environment.
- Insects are vital to our existence: 1/3 of our food is pollination-dependent.
- Not only are insects important to humans, they also serve as an important food source for other creatures (mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles, etc).
- Insects help aerate, enrich and irrigate the soil, helping plants grow.
6. DO SOMETHING TO HELP INSECTS
Now that they’ve started to recognize the importance of insects, help your kids feel more invested in the continued survival of insects.
- Make an insect hotel. These structures can help insects find shelter and give them a place to build a nest.
- Plant native, pollinator-friendly perennials and see how much they love the flowers when they bloom. Gardening with insects in mind and creating pollinator habitats can make a big difference.
- As we know, volunteering can be so beneficial for a child. Look for citizen scientist opportunities, such as Mass Audubon’s Firefly Watch and Xerces Society’s Bumblebee Watch and Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.
7. BE PATIENT, LET YOUR KIDS SET THE PACE
Please remember that fears aren’t always rational, so take time to understand your child’s feelings. Don’t rush it. Give them time. And be patient with yourself as well!
Helping your kids overcome their fear of insects could indeed be a slow process, but the ultimate reward is worth it. Hopefully the fear will gradually be replaced with a sense of wonder, appreciation and curiosity for these creatures that play such an important role in our ecosystem.
Did you know that…
…All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs? Technically, “bugs” are an order of insects called Hemiptera.
…Spiders aren’t actually insects, but your child may not make that distinction. Of course you are welcome to teach them the different classifications! Although they are both arthropods with exoskeletons, insects belong to the Class Insecta, whereas spiders belong to the Class Arachnida. Some distinctions are that insects have 3 body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), 2 compound eyes, 2 antennae, 4 or 2 or 0 wings, 3 pairs of legs and a segmented abdomen, while spiders have 2 body parts (cephalathorax, abdomen), 8 simple eyes, no antennae, no wings, 4 pairs of legs and an unsegmented abdomen.