How do you avoid passing down your own phobias to your kids?

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Ew. Photo by Anil Jadhav, used under Creative Commons license.
I’ve spent most of my years living in the deep south, generally within 100 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. I’m now in New Orleans, my favorite city in the world, given its lovely, warm weather, great food, and fantastic culture.

I’ve also spent almost my entire life terrified — and I mean TERRIFIED — of bugs. I’m planning to become a mom in the next couple of years, and now I’m worried that this fear will make it hard to be a good mom. I don’t think my mom is scared of anything! I remember her smacking lizards, not jumping on chairs and screaming.

Living in New Orleans, there is no avoiding creepy crawlies. They are everywhere. How do offbeat mamas avoid passing on their own phobias to their kids? (And seriously: at what point can you ask your kids to squish roaches for you?) — Michelle

Comments on How do you avoid passing down your own phobias to your kids?

  1. I think this is such an important question! My insane fear of bees and spiders came because my mom FLIPPED out whenever they were around. Now that I’m a mama (my son is 2), if we’re walking and see a bee, I kind of talk through my fear — I say, “Look at the bee! He’s buzzing around and getting pollen. Isn’t that awesome?” as I calmly and slowly edge away from where the bee is. Spiders are harder for me but, again, somehow talking about the bug helps me. “Spiders have eight legs, Liam. Can we count to eight?” again, as I turn to walk away or go get my partner for his bug removal capabilities. I know it’s such a simple suggestion but using the moment as a teaching experience (while calmly removing myself from the situation) really helps me not pass on that fear.

  2. That’s a really good question. Kids really do look to us to decide what’s scary. I have an irrational fear of worms, slugs, and maggots (*shudder*). When gardening with kids, I do my best to prepare myself not to freak out when I see a worm. They do notice me acting weird, so I explain that I am scared of worms, but that most people are not scared of worms, and they don’t have to be scared. If they ask why, I explain that sometimes people have phobias, things they are scared of that don’t make sense. Like, being scared of getting hurt is not a phobia. No one likes to get hurt. But being scared of a worm is a phobia because worms really can’t hurt you in any way. Beware that the child/children might try pretending to have a phobia of their own for awhile. It’s their way of processing this new concept you’ve introduced. Other than that I just try to model behaviors for dealing with a phobia. I demonstrate how I breathe deeply, step away for a moment if I need to, and remind myself that the squirmy things can’t hurt me.

    • I have the same phobia, and I’m just so relieved to “meet” someone else who does!

      Having got that off my chest, I’ve worked pretty hard to remain calm when I’m digging, and it’s really only when they move a lot that I react visibly. My daughter’s not big enough to ask questions, yet.

  3. My husband is a total arachnophobic, and I use his fears as a way to talk to my son about how different things scare different people. We had a conversation recently where I was like, “Do spiders scare you?” (No.) “Well then maybe you can help Papa be less afraid the next time he sees a spider! Maybe holding his hand would help him be less scared.”

    I feel like it’s a neat opportunity for my son to learn about the relativity of fear, and also the fact that his parents are humans who have silly quirks like being irrationally afraid of certain things. By making it an observation, I feel like it keeps my son from inheriting the fears… while also helping him learn something about the concept of fear.

    • I like this idea of observing the fear and talking through it. My way of trying not to pass on my insane fear of going to the doctor was to struggle mightily never to let on that I was afraid in front of my daughter and to immediately dismiss the notion that going to the doctor was scary. At about 7, she was protesting her annual check up and said, “I’m just scared of going to the doctor–like you are.”

      So, yeah, the kid’s observant and I fucked this up. I wish we had talked about it instead of pointlessly trying to hide it.

  4. I too have wondered about this. I have an irrational fear of dolls, and I have a baby daughter – not the greatest combination. Not barbies or cabbage patch or anything like that, but the creepy, dead-eyed “real” looking dolls. I visibly cringe, and often leave, if I have to be in the same room with one, and as my daughter gets older I know this will pose a problem. I’m trying whatever I can think of, deep breathing, visualizing something else, whatever, to try and deal with it so that when someone gets her a doll, as they probably will, I won’t wig out.

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time talking through fears with my daughters. They were tweens when I met them and that makes the dialogue a little different but usually an aplication of logic and a lot of “why do you feel that way?” & “do you think that’s a reasonable reaction?” style questions seem to work well to ward off most fears. There has been a long LONG list of unreasonable fears stemming from misinformation, flawed logic, & safety issues left unaddressed.

    A recent conversation about a fear of “dead things” like rabbits foot keychains or alligator paw souveniers went something like this:

    Kid:(Freaking out over an alligator paw souvenier she’d recieved) I just don’t like dead things, they freak me out.
    Me: Why?
    Kid:Well because their spirit might come back and be mad at me or something.
    Me: Okay… but you carry grandpa’s ashes around your neck. Are you afraid he’d come back & be mad at you?
    Kid: No, but that’s different. I know him.
    Me: Okay… What about the artwork I have in the kitchen that has chicken bones in it? Does that worry you?
    Kid: No. We have chicken bones all the time to make soup & stuff.
    Me: Okay… so how is it different if someone has a rabbits foot or whatever vs us hanging chicken bones on the wall? What makes one scary and the other not?
    Kid:I don’t know.
    Me: Well, we eat a lot of meat & fish. We use a lot of bones for stock & a lot of leather for clothes & upholstery… If we’re afraid that the rabbit or alligator might come back & haunt us shouldn’t we be worried about all the fish & chickens & cows?
    Kid: Yeah… I guess but we’re not, are we? I guess it doesn’t really make sense.

    The conversation then moved on to ghosts and how if ghosts were really problematic it’d be in the news and it would be something people talked more about.

    • it’s interesting — on a woo-woo/mystical note, i think your daughter’s concerns sound very intuitive and perceptive. is it about her handling her fears, or thinking that she shouldn’t have these kinds of feelings about objects?

      i worry about passing phobias along to my son, but i also don’t want him to feel like everything has to be rational… since it isn’t. what a weird balance to strike.

  6. Oooo! Good question. And I’m liking the responses so far.

    I’m so terrified of spiders and most bugs in general (the only ones I’m fine with are tiny butterflies and ladybugs). And depending on the bug, I will run from the room to get my husband to come kill it. Or if I’m by myself, I’ll trap it under a glass. Most of the time I cry!

    I’m also bad around blood, it can cause me to faint (a lucky family trait I inherited), so I’m not scared to talk about things involving blood or medical things.

    I want to be dependable. But I don’t want to push myself to talk about blood/medical things to the point where I pass out. Or forced to squish a spider between some tissues. Perhaps I can turn it into something like, “mommy is scared of this because [blah] and it’s okay because we all get scared…[insert some sort of wisdom here]”

    But I do remember being a kid and my mom being terrified of snakes, but I loved them! I found some sort of odd accomplishment that I was braver than my mom at something.

  7. I didn’t “catch” my parents’ phobias. And I don’t ever remembering them doing anything specific to shield me from it. I developed my own bizarre list of fears and phobias (clusters of holes, pads of butter, things popping in my hands, cotton balls and clowns.)
    I actually found my parents fears to be something to challenge myself with. My mom, for example, has a terrible fear of heights. Knowing that, it was always fun for me to test my own comfort with heights (and, honestly, to make her as nervous as possible when I walked to the edge of a cliff or something.)
    If it’s something you really want to address, though, just say that your fear is your own and that a lot of people don’t react the same way you do to that particular situation. Ask for kid’s opinion on whether thing is scary.

    • I just want to chime in with dootsiebug saying that I also didn’t ‘catch’ my parents fears (mom: snakes; dad: heights) though I was made aware of them. I have my own weird set of fears that are completely my own, and are totally unrelated to anything my parents are scared of.

      I take that anecdotal evidence to mean that most kids are probably OK with adults talking out their fears aloud — just as many have suggested in this thread! As an adult, I love this idea because I know I was a sensitive kid that really valued honesty… and I think it might be scarier for kids if they sense their parent(s) is withholding ‘important’ information from them.

  8. I’m a believer in just “sucking it up”. I hate spiders. Can’t even kill them because they freak me out. Imagine my joy when I find my daughter the other day laying flat on the floor face to face with a spider, checking it out. I don’t want her to have my issue with it, so we talked about how interesting it looked, number of legs, etc.

    I decided on this approach after watching a grandmother and her grandchild at the swing next to us. The child was happily swinging and asked her grandmother to swing on the empty swing next to her. The grandmother said no several times and when asked why, she answered that she was terrified of heights so she couldn’t swing. I was surprised to hear, not even 15 seconds later, (from the 3 year old grandchild) I’m scared of heights too, I want to get off.

    Who knows if the child will actually be afraid of heights, but how sad it was to me that the grandmother couldn’t have just gotten in a few swings with a smile.

    • I’m glad that works for you! I would like to point out, though, that some people lack the skills or ability to simply “suck it up.”

      I have a pretty severe needle phobia. While I now know that my best strategy for dealing with my fear is to just do it, I had to learn skills to be able to do so, and lessen my fair with gradual exposure therapy. If you had asked me just three years ago to “suck it up”, I would have felt attacked and ashamed.

      My brother put it eloquently once when, as part of my treatment, I asked him his strategies for dealing with needles: “Me saying this is like a sparrow telling a turtle who has asked how to fly, ‘just flap your wings.'”

      • Just to be clear. Nowhere did I direct anyone to “suck it up”. I stated that it was how I dealt with things myself. I’m not sure why you are taking this personally.

        Maybe “suck it up” is a little crude. I’m not saying it’s easy. To me, “suck it up” is the same as “fake it till you make it”. (ie, pretending that it’s ok, when it’s obviously not).

        As someone who also had a severe needle phobia, and then found myself having to inject 3x/week for the rest of my life, I did have to “suck it up”. It took me 1.5 years to get there myself and a lot of crying and freaking out, but it wasn’t until I realized the needle wasn’t going in by itself, that I was forced to confront my fears and just do it on my own.

        • I’m not taking it personally – just pointing out another perspective 🙂

          I was told (rather harshly!) by many people to “suck it up” when my phobia was at the worst, so it is admittedly a bit of a trigger phrase for me!

          • I understand your perspective and agree with it completely. I would be pissed off if anyone told me to suck it up.

            Fortunately, I’ve never told anyone they needed to. That would be cruel.

  9. This is something I have thought about in regards to my Future!Kids, too. Though, while I certainly have phobias (Heights make me nervous. Snakes make me scream.) I am more worried about not passing on things like my intense dislike of math.

    Dyslexia and disgraphia have always made trying to do anything involving numbers painful and frustrating for me despite having what I’m told is a very good grasp of the concepts (A combination that confused my math major mother no end!), the result of which being that I tend to panic when confronted with a math question, especially if I have an audience. And I really don’t want to pass this on to my kids, since being good at math is a really useful skill!

    My plan so far is to make math education the job of my husband (who plays number games with license plates and clocks to keep himself entertained and who can do most division and multiplication problems in his head faster than I can bring up a calculator), possibly with supplemental instruction from my mother, to avoid any “women aren’t good at math” associations, especially if I have a daughter.

    I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts/experiences that people have on dealing with not passing on those sort of academic phobia.

    • Wow, that is tough. I have math phobia as well. I think in your case though, it might be a good way to talk to your kids about being “differently abled” (I know, that term isn’t the best, but still) to talk about how some people’s brains work differently than other people’s. And how it doesn’t make one person smarter, or better or whatever, just different, etc

      • Yup. I melt down when confronted with anything vaguely complex and having to do with numbers. It’s awful, but much like other phobias, I feel like it might present an opportunity for my child to be the “strong one,” assuming he inherits/acquires my husband’s mathematical prowess. If my son is like me, well, then I’m an example of surviving the phobia long-term, and I can share coping strategies!

    • oh man. “math is hard,” to quote the old Barbie dolls. i really disliked it after about 4th or 5th grade, once i realized there was no point in me doing it. they already know the answers! other disciplines allow you to delve into things and make/write something original.

      but it was difficult watching my stepdaughter reach a similar conclusion. the gender programming on this is *strong.*

  10. I’ve got sort of an add on question – I’ve got a phobia/strong disliking of any piercing or body modifications (tattoos are fine for some reason). It’s the kind of thing where I have to fight not to cringe even when people are just wearing nonobsrusive earrings (thankfully, being an engineer, you don’t get too many people wearing earrings all the time!). So how does one deal with maybe their kid wanting to get piercings?

    • I don’t know how much this will help, but personally I’m a big believer in having control over your own body so I won’t allow my kid to get a piercing until they’re mature enough to know it’s something they truly want. I’m also not going to let them get a tattoo until they’re legally allowed to do it without my signature. I love tattoos and piercings, but think that its such a personal, and empowering decision that I’d like our child to have that empowering experience of walking into the tattoo parlor on their own, if it’s something they want. Depending on the laws in your area you can always say that you think it’s important that they can get whatever done on their own volition without legally needing your permission. This might buy you some time.

      Alternatively, you could try to cultivate a fear of needles, which would probably result in the kid not getting any body modifications (just kidding).

  11. My mom had a similar problem. She hated bugs and snakes.

    Her basic philosophy was “fake it ’till you make it.” she just pretended to the kids that bugs and etc were cool. One easy way to do that was to read us books with bugs in them, get us pretty bug stickers, and give us some of those photo books with big pictures of bugs. none of these involved REAL insects so they were easier for her to deal with.

    If one of the kids caught a bug to show her, she’d say something like, “oh, what a great bug! Let’s take him outside where he’ll be safe.”

    I had NO idea that my mom didn’t love bugs until I was 30! And by then, after raising three kids who thought bugs were awesome, and seeing the insect world through her children’s excited eyes, she’d gotten over her phobia and learned to like them too.

    If you’ve got a reaaaaally serious, life effecting phobia that leaves you a screaming, gibbering mess, might be best to seek professional help. But for ordinary fears that most folks have, a little bit of fake playacting may be all you need.

    • Yes! Learning about insects, spiders, reptiles, etc can profoundly change the way you feel about ’em, especially when you learn to recognize a few different kinds. Suddenly it’s a familiar face, not some rando creepy-crawly. And an awful lot of arthropods are shockingly beautiful– see also peacock spiders, morpho butterflies, and the “glorious scarab.” 🙂

    • I used to be terrified of bugs, then my boyfriend bought a chameleon. Since he ate bugs, I had to go buy bags of crickets and mealworms and stuff for him to eat….bugs don’t creep me out any more!

  12. I just want to say I have such a severe phobia of the bug you posted as the picture that I had to cover the image with my hand so I could even click the link to come in here and leave this message. :C

  13. I;ve had several phobias throughout my life. As a kid, I was TERRIFIED of butterflies. I hated other bugs too, but butterflies the most.I also had phobias of bridges, highways, hills, fast rides, needles,thunder, and more.

    My parents weren’t really fearful of anything.My mother is afraid of bees, btu that’s because she’s anaphylactic. My point is, these fears came from nowhere. Even if you do the best job ever at not teaching your kid fears, they will likely learn some anyways.

    For me the biggest motivator is my son. As I said, I have a phobia of needles. I didnt get a single shot or blood test between 7 and 16 due to this. At 16, I found out I was pregnant, and lo and behold I could do a blood test- not for me, but for him. I’ve faced my other fears in similar ways.

    We feel fear because we percieve a threat. Even if we know the threat is imaginary, we react the same way. So instead of fighting it, I embrace it. I “Protect” my son from thunderstorms, etc, but going through safety procedures calmly and carefully, while explaining that if we do these things, the storm can’t hurt us.

    • Oh yeah needles! I’m terrified of needles. Even though I’m terrified, I still got all my shots and blood tests done whenever needed. But it’s a BIG deal. Someone always needs to be present with me to hold my hand. I can’t look as well. I warn the nurses/medical professionals….but I usually will go into shock afterwards…so I have to lie down! I don’t know what to do about it!! I can watch people getting a needle (even though it makes me uncomfortable)…but I can’t! It’s so debilitating being 26, and having to lie down with a juice box after getting a flu shot.

      • I know the feeling. I barely stay conscious- which is an improvement, since I used to faint every time. When I was 12, I got half a dose, but she had to stop because I was shaking too hard. I’m the opposite of most people though- I HAVE to look. If I don’t, I’ll jump and possibly have the needle break.

  14. So glad to see this post, me and my husband have been talking about this so much recently! We’re a long way off from having kids yet but we’re both really worried about me screwing up our kids’ perspectives cos of my phobias. I’m afraid of pretty much everything but my main problem is a fear of heights, I mean a trembling-just-standing-on-a-stool fear of heights. Because of this phobia I haven’t been on a single flight in my adult life without being drunk as a monkey, I usually have to start drinking just to get to the airport in the first place, and that’s just for one or two hour flights! To get to Sri Lanka for our honeymoon I had to neck a combination of beta blockers, diazapam, and over a bottle of wine to see me through the 11 hour flight. I can’t help but feel that that wouldn’t consitute responsible parenting when we eventually travel with kids, because as much as flying terrifies me there’s just no way I can allow my crippling fears to stop my kids experience the joy of discovering the world, I want travelling to be a major part of their upbringing. I’m honestly terrified of hearing my future kid asking my husband why mummy’s shaking, sweating, and crying her way through a flight. Or worst still to hear them enquiring as to why mum’s drinking Jack Daniels through a straw while singing sea shanties! I was just wondering if anyone else has had to deal with something similar, a lot of the other posts involve facing a fear where slowly removing yourself from the situation is an option. How do you cope with being shit scared when you can’t escape and the fear stimulation is ongoing? I honestly think all family holidays may have to involve me leaving a week early and travelling abroad by boat!
    Hope I’m not hijacking this post, would just love a little advice.

    • You could try what I do. My biggest fear is storms, which are unavoidable and inescapable, really.

      What I do is I obsess over safety. When I hear a storm coming, I go to the kitchen, pour myself a couple of shots (Where he can’t see me), and then get to preparing. I close and bolt all the windows, curtains, etc, prepare water jugs just in case, and chatter to my son about storm safety. Obviously you can’t do that in a plane, but you can read the safety book, buckle the seatbelt, etc.

      Or, you could do my grandmother’s method. She just takes a sleeping pill at the airport for long flights and by the time she wakes up, she’s there.

  15. I’ve worried about this, too. I’m terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED) of spiders, to the point where I can’t do anything but shake and cry if there’s one anywhere in the house, and can’t even look at pictures of them (I almost didn’t click on this post just in case…) but I really don’t want to pass that on to my son, who’s 8 months. There’s no way I could just “fake it” around a spider, though. I can’t even bear the thought of having therapy for it, because I don’t want to be fooled into thinking it’s OK to touch/like them, which I know doesn’t make much sense, but hey, phobias are irrational. But I really don’t know how I’m going to cope with this as my son gets older – my worst fear is that he will pick one up and bring it to me. I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d cope.

  16. I’ve got clinical-level vomit phobia. Haven’t puked since 1990! Would rather be shot than forced to vomit! It was pretty hard to decide to get pregnant, what with the risk of morning sickness. Then there’s the whole other question of all the vomit our child will produce. My charming husband has agreed to take on all upper GI-related comforting and cleanup, in exchange for me taking on all fecal diapers, and each of us feels we’ve come out on top. As for passing the phobia on, I dunno. Mine seems innate – I’ve freaked out about vomiting since I was a baby and stubbornly swore at age 9 never to do it again. But later in life I discovered that my grandma is also an emetophobe, as are two of my aunts. So who knows? Maybe there is a genetic component.

    I guess I agree with many comments here about acknowledging the irrationality of some fears. What more can we do? I can’t simply eliminate the phobia. I actually deal with it really well – it’s not at all the intrusive problem that it used to be for me, because now I simply trust in the power of my own will to keep everything down. I don’t talk or worry about it all day long, and I think that’s the best thing I can do for the kiddo on the way.

  17. As a new mum I am also thinking about this. I don’t have any major phobia’s but I’m ‘uncomfortable at height’ if that counts (I’ve become much better at dealing with it over recent years, baby steps) 🙂
    My husband is scared of needles and has mild panic attacks when he has to get his shots or have blood taken. He is trying to overcome this by helping our daughter through her new born shots.

    My new years resolution for the past few years has been to try at least one new thing every month (be it a new food or a new experience or going somewhere new) as a way of broadening my horizons and pushing my personal boundaries. I’m hoping to continue this as my little girl grows up and do my best to foster a curious/adventurous spirit in her.

  18. I didn’t read all the comments so I apologize if this has already been said in some way or another, but here is my story: I hate roaches. No other bugs or animals really freak me out, just roaches. I will pick up a wild snake, a rat, a lizard, kill spiders, you name it. But if a roach gets into my house, I am screaming like a 13 year old girl at a Hanson concert. That being said, I realized that I could handle roaches just fine when I caught my 3 month old trying to put a live one in his mouth. I panicked for a second, grabbed a tissue, and scooped it up. He barely noticed and it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to get squicked out. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that I can handle anything when it comes to the safety and health of my kids. Now roaches aren’t that big of a deal, as long as they aren’t near my babies. I’m not saying that you should let bugs near your kids so you can ‘save’ them and get over your fear while being an awesome parent, but just think about the fact that you can face anything with your baby as inspiration. Good luck!

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