Honing our Fears

By Pam Henderson

I made a quick exit from my twilight gardening last Sunday when a bat invited himself to dinner in my backyard. I’m deathly afraid of bats – chiroptophobia at its worse. It’s not the bats’ blood-sucking that scares me – because I believe that vampire bats are only in South America. Rather, I’m afraid that they’ll get stuck in my hair. As an impressionable 5-year old, the teenage girls in our neighborhood told me it was so. That event set my bat phobia into motion.

To overcome something like a peanut allergy, there is a belief that one should be exposed in small doses of peanuts. This exposure gradually increases until the immunity is built. It would seem that limited exposures to a phobia would be therapeutic in overcoming the fear, meaning that if I walked through the Australia Exhibit at Brookfield Zoo, where the bats are flying freely without any overhead netting to distance them from guests, I would become desensitized to bats. Not gonna happen in a million years. I cannot even touch the glass display where the bats hang upside while feasting on orange slices at Potawatomie Zoo. I would be more likely to arm wrestle a hungry alligator or pet a rabid coyote. Just seeing bats in a nature show on television makes my skin crawl. If a bat ever made his way into my home, I think I might have to move.

When I saw the bat, I scurried into the house with such recklessness that I couldn’t remember if I closed the overhead garage doors. When I opened the door between the garage and house to check on it, a giant moth landed on me. I brushed him away and went on with my night without a second thought to the moth. Moths don’t really bother me. Years ago, a giant green Luna moth, which must have been 3 inches wide, took up residence at Dunebrook. He was a social media sensation at the time, and I wasn’t the least bit afraid of him.

If instead that moth had landed on my mom on Sunday night, we might have had to make a run to the emergency room. Well, probably not that much drama would have played out, but she would have become unhinged from that moth. My bats are her moths. Maybe when she was a little girl pulling out a box from her closet, a moth flew out and landed on her. He could have been the size of a ladybug, but in her mind, he probably was as big as a black bear.

It’s the same with my husband and spiders. He’s completed creeped out by them, while our daughter has put them in a plastic dish to look at them. And, there’s my other daughter and needles. She would rather suffer through tetanus than to get a shot, while I am able to read a novel as the needle is sticking out of my arm while I’m donating blood.  

Why is it that a bat sends my heart racing, but my colleague has held a bat and petted him to sleep? And, why is it that my husband is deathly afraid of heights, but I can change lightbulbs on the highest peak of the garage roof? He tells me, “You’re so brave.” I respond, “It’s not bravery if you’re not scared.” It’s very curious, that what one of us fears, the other embraces.

The American Academy of Pediatrics references a study that found 43% of children between ages 6 and 12 had many fears and concerns. These are the ages where children tend to be the most afraid of things – from darkness to barking dogs.

According to Klaus Minde, a child psychiatrist at Montreal Children’s Hospital, “Phobias also appear to have family roots. Children with phobias often have a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle with an irrational fear or two, suggesting a genetic link. Or they can simply be copying a fear response they’ve seen modelled by worrywart parents.”

Doug Symons, a child clinical psychologist in Nova Scotia adds that parents can reinforce the phobia by avoiding the scary situation or showering a child with attention when she cries. Neither of these will serve to ease a child’s fears. When she is panicking, he comments, “you need to comfort her, but you don’t want to be overly attentive. And, of course, never push your child towards whatever’s scaring her.”  Dr. Minde urges parents to not validate the fear by explaining to your child for the 20th time why nothing will hurt her. He says, “After three or four times, just say, ‘You know the answer.’

Keith Turton, a community educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association encourages parents to sit down with their child and discuss his fears. As always, consult your child’s physician if you have questions or notice that a fear is interfering with your child’s enjoyment of life.

In case you’re wondering, the 2017 Top fears, according to Fearof.net, are fear of:

  1. Holes
  2. Flying
  3. Germs
  4. Small Spaces
  5. Thunder and Lightning
  6. Dogs
  7. Open or Crowded Spaces
  8. Heights
  9. Snakes
  10. Spiders

Surprisingly, bats didn’t even make the cut.