How to Get Over Fear of Bugs

You can picture it now, you’re quickly making breakfast on the campstove while your children are seemingly occupied with sticks and rocks nearby, but then you hear it “AGGGHHHHH, GROSS! GET IT OFF! SMASH IT!”

Creepy crawlies – those tiny, multi-legged creatures that traverse our gardens, forests, and imaginations. As outdoor enthusiasts, we recognize their integral role in the ecosystem, yet the mere mention of them can send shivers down some of our friends’ spines. So how can we expect our children not to sometimes balk at the sight of an ant hill and teach them how to get over fear of bugs?

Two kids enjoy butterflies on their hands.

For the purpose of this post, we’ll define “creepy crawlies” as any small(ish) creature that you may encounter on your family’s outdoor adventures: snakes, worms, spiders, lizards, beetles, and other things colloquially considered “bugs.”

While adults often grapple with irrational fears, children’s apprehensions about bugs stem from a complex interplay of curiosity, misconceptions, and societal cues. Through this post, we aim to provide an in-depth guide for outdoor families seeking to help their children understand and eventually embrace (perhaps not literally) these intriguing creatures.

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Child in blue sweatshirt smiles at camera while holding slug.

Creepy Crawlies: A Complex Fear

It’s crucial to acknowledge that children’s fears of bugs differ markedly from adult phobias. Kids may harbor misconceptions perpetuated by media and adults. Bugs are often labeled as “gross” or “yucky,” which shapes their perception. We may not understand how this language could possibly cause such heightened reactions in children but must remind ourselves that these fears are likely taught, or at least strengthened through this language.

Children’s fears of creepy crawlies can also stem from a lack of complete comprehension of bugs, making them an “unknown.” To them, bugs are part of a vast, mysterious world that can evoke both fascination and trepidation. Their lack of familiarity with these creatures’ behaviors and roles often leads to misconceptions and exaggerated fears. As adults, we’re aware of the irrationality of such fears, but children are navigating a world where their understanding is still evolving.

As parents and caregivers, we have the opportunity to guide them toward a more positive perspective. So, how do we do it?

Exploring Creepy Crawlies From Afar

Bugs and Books

The journey to conquer bug fears begins with introducing these creatures through indirect encounters. Age-appropriate books that present insects, spiders, worms, and snakes as relatable characters with positive attributes are an excellent starting point. This approach, known as anthropomorphism, helps bridge the gap between the unfamiliar and the familiar. A few books we love are: Hank’s Big Day: The Story of a Bug, Steve the Dung Beetle: On a Roll, and What Bug Am I?

Supplement these stories with non-fiction books adorned with captivating pictures and natural history descriptions, emphasizing the non-threatening aspects of bugs. Some great starts include: Ladybugs: Red, Fiery, and Bright, The Book of Brilliant Bugs, and Big Book of Bugs.

Through literature, children can embark on imaginative journeys, discovering bugs as fascinating characters rather than fearsome adversaries. By emphasizing the positive traits of these creatures, we can subtly shift their perception, paving the way for curiosity and acceptance.

In addition, even utilizing art can help kids become more fond of bugs. Draw 50 Creepy Crawlies has step-by-step instructions that can help kids see bugs in a different light.

Bugs and Screens

Though we might be apprehensive of relying on screens as outdoor families, there are several ways to learn about creepy crawlies in the digital realm. YouTube offers a treasure trove of educational videos, and with proper adult supervision, both you and your kids can gain knowledge. Platforms like The Wild Kratts channel craft episodes that weave entertainment with education, captivating young minds with bug-related content.

To add a touch of interactive learning, consider virtual meet and greet sessions with your local zoo or nature center, laying the foundation for eventual in-person encounters. In Montana, thousands of children have met Milton, the Giant African Millipede, in virtual programming through the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium.

Baby looks curiously at leopard gecko through FaceTime.

Addressing Misunderstandings About Bugs

Have a conversation with your child about why they’re afraid of or dislike a specific type of bug. Do they think that bees sting every person they come in contact with? Maybe they don’t know that their favorite fruits wouldn’t exist without pollinators? Work to understand what exact misconceptions your kiddo might have and seek out the positive roles certain types of creepy crawlies play in the world.

By taking the time to address their concerns and offer accurate information, we can demystify these creatures and encourage a more open-minded perspective. Engage in conversations that cater to their age and level of understanding, unraveling the mysteries and highlighting the importance of bugs in the ecosystem.

Respond Appropriately to Fear

When your child expresses fear of bugs, respond with empathy and understanding. Validating their emotions and demonstrating your unwavering support can be immensely reassuring and pave the way for positive bug encounters.

Avoid dismissing their fears or pressuring them to confront their worries head-on. “Facing your fears” when it comes to children and bugs, often backfires. Instead, adopt a patient approach.

Don’t Flee!

You might reinforce the idea that creepy crawlies are dangerous by picking up children or taking them inside when they express distress from bugs. If a bug enters their vicinity, sit down with them and engage in dialogue. Observe the bug together, discussing its characteristics, behavior, and role in the environment. This approach empowers your child with knowledge, transforming fear into curiosity.

Baby sits on wicker patio furniture looking at a grasshopper.

Harnessing Humor to Diminish Fear

Humor can be a potent antidote to fear. Employ lighthearted comments to defuse tension and create a relaxed atmosphere. When encountering a bee, playfully remark, “Oh bumblebee, Sawyer’s not a flower! Go check out those purple blossoms over there!” or muse about the worm’s navigational skills, saying, “How can that worm even see where it’s going? It doesn’t have eyes!”

Child in hat a purple shoes bends down to pick up worm.

Through these anecdotes, you’re fostering an environment where bugs are approachable and even amusing companions. These playful exchanges ease anxiety and plant the seeds for “friendly” encounters.

Cultivating Bug Collection and Observation

Hands-on engagement is a powerful method for dispelling fears (though clear expectations around safety and not harassing wildlife must be set). Arm your budding entomologists with nets, bug catchers, and temporary terrariums (read: clear tupperware), encouraging them to collect and observe insects, arachnids, and worms.

Your kids will start to recognize patterns of where they can find bugs, adding to their familiarity with different creatures. This also provides an opportunity to create a habitat and discuss the necessary elements for all living things (food, water, shelter, space).

Safe water exploration can result in finding bugs of all sorts (macroinvertebrates). Equip kids with gear like tubs, ice cube trays, and nets for studying the aquatic insects. Any small mesh net will work but nets with one flat side make river bottom scooping much easier.

Child in baseball cap bends over ice cube tray full off macroinvertebrates.

Oftentimes, shuffling feet through the muck to gently stir up macroinvertebrates ensures a gold mine of insects in your net.

Don’t forget to pick up river rocks to see what’s living underneath too!

Complement their adventures with identification guides that facilitate learning about different species. This dichotomous key developed by the University of Wisconsin–Extension in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Based on a key developed by Riveredge Nature Center, Newburg, WI is incredibly helpful and easy to navigate (and also can be found in 95% of the outdoor schools across the country).

Child looks through magnifier at macroinvertebrates.

By providing the tools for direct observation, you’re granting your children the power to explore their curiosity. As they collect bugs, they’re not only overcoming fears but also uncovering the hidden world of these creatures. Encourage them to ask questions, make observations, and document their findings – this hands-on approach fosters a sense of ownership over their learning and gradually reduces their apprehension.

Ensuring that your children aren’t harassing anything they’ve collected is key. Capture and observation should be short-term, providing the opportunity to select the perfect place to release the creature when studying is through. Through patient exploration, and with your guidance around gentle handling, your children will gain confidence and understanding of these creatures.

General Handling Etiquette

Though different species may require different techniques which you should familiarize yourself with before collecting, there are several general tips to keep in mind.

It’s a good idea before and after handling creepy crawlies to thoroughly wash your hands with plain water. Avoid using lotion or hand sanitizer prior to handling, as residue from these substances can be harmful to amphibians.

Child smiles while holding a tiny lizard.

Use a gentle touch when handling any creature. Place your hands underneath the body, supporting it from all sides, and avoid squeezing or gripping tightly. When handling larger creepy crawlies like frogs, use flat hands to support their body weight evenly. Avoid gripping or pinching them.

Keep handling sessions short to reduce stress. A few minutes is generally sufficient.

Especially with children, hold creatures close to the ground or a flat surface to minimize the risk of injury if they jump or fall. In addition, I’ve found it very helpful to teach kids to “freeze” if an insect escapes their hands as to avoid stepping on it. 

Watch for signs of stress or discomfort. If a creature starts exhibiting signs like vocalizing or displaying erratic behavior, gently place it back in its habitat.

Some species are protected by laws and regulations. Always be aware of local laws and ethical considerations before collecting or handling amphibians.

Creepy Crawly Safety

Before embarking on bug-hunting expeditions, initiate a candid conversation about safety. Teach your children how to interact with these creatures respectfully, minimizing harm to both the bugs and themselves. 

Provide practical tips and emphasize responsible behavior. This educational approach fosters a sense of empowerment, allowing your kids to navigate the outdoors confidently while respecting the intricate balance of nature.

Snake Safety

Child in blue shirt holds tiny snake.

Snakes are fascinating and often misunderstood creatures. While the majority of snake species are harmless and play important roles in ecosystems by controlling rodent populations, it’s essential to exercise caution and be prepared for potential encounters.

Begin with your own research of the types of snakes that inhabit the area you live in (or are visiting with your family). Knowledge of local species and their habits can help you identify potential risks and minimize unexpected encounters. 

When you feel confident in your identification, teach children how to identify the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Use pictures or illustrations to highlight distinct markings and features.

All families differ in their comfort with reptiles, just make sure to set the boundaries for what you’re comfortable with your child picking up. 

Insect Safety 

Understanding which bugs in your area can bite is key to avoiding this scenario. Again, safety begins with identification so make sure you and your children know how to recognize insects that are venomous. 

Utilizing bug nets and terrariums can also prevent unwanted bites from insects. 

While snakes and insects may evoke feelings of caution, they are part of the natural world you’re venturing into. By equipping yourself with knowledge, adopting preventive measures, and respecting these creatures’ habitats, you can coexist harmoniously and enjoy the outdoors with confidence. Remember that each encounter with a snake or insect is an opportunity to learn, appreciate, and contribute to the preservation of our diverse and fascinating ecosystems.

A Bug-Tastic Journey Awaits

Child wearing magnifying lense bends over mud to touch snail.

As outdoor families, you have the unique opportunity to guide your children through a remarkable transformation – from fear to fascination, from aversion to appreciation. The intricate world of creepy crawlies holds valuable lessons about biodiversity, resilience, and interconnectedness. By adopting the approaches outlined in this guide – understanding, exploration, humor, and safety – you’re setting the stage for a lifelong relationship with the natural world.

So, gear up, venture out, and let the bug-tastic exploration unfold! Through patient guidance and the power of knowledge, you’re not only helping your children conquer their bug fears but also nurturing a deep-rooted connection to the extraordinary natural world all around us. With each step, observation, and interaction, you’re paving the way for a future where creepy crawlies are not just tolerated, but celebrated as vital components to our ecosystem.

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How to Get Over Fear of Bugs

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  • Jess is a brand new mom living at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park determined to make outdoor adventures possible, even with a newborn. Jess has a background in geology and will infiltrate any hike with stories of glaciation. She loves to camp, can be found rowing the family’s 30 year old drift boat down the Yellowstone River most days of the summer, and believes everyone should have access to the outdoors. As a side note, she also loves musical theatre and tap dancing.

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