Ask AF: Overcoming Fears

It's normal for toddlers to be afraid of everyday things like animals, bugs, or loud noises — particularly if they've recently been adopted.

Q: Our newly adopted toddler is terribly afraid of animals. Even though he cried whenever we saw a dog in the street, we made the mistake of going to a zoo during our adoption trip. Now I fear we’ve traumatized him for life. How can we introduce him to our pet dog (who’s been staying with my sister)? What if he can’t get over this fear?


A: Many toddler are afraid of animals — would you be comfortable playing with a dog as big as you are? But traumatized for life — not! Basic techniques for desensitization can be used, keeping in mind that your little guy has so many things to get used to at once. I hope your sister can continue to watch your dog while you work on decreasing your son’s fear.

Start with stuffed animals, puppets, or picture books. Act out friendly role-plays, beginning with your son looking at the animal, then touching it, then petting. Then work with a real dog — visit your pet and let your son watch the dog from afar, gradually coming closer, touching, and so on. But remember, increasing his trust in you and lowering his anxiety about his new life in general are your goals. The animal fears may need the special treatment described about, or they may decrease gradually, on their own, after he becomes more comfortable overall. Focus on your parent-child bonding, and remember that your dog is incidental to that.


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