It all began at the duck park. Isn’t that where it always starts?
While feeding the ducks, three mud-splattered ibis high-tailed toward us, trying to get a snack or two. My daughter started screaming, shivering and then crying uncontrollably.
My first unhelpful thoughts were to:
- Scare the ibis away by screaming and running after them. How dare they scare my child!
- Pick up my daughter and tell her to get over it. They’re just ibis.
Those two initial responses are not the best way to handle the situation.
I’ll tell you how I handled it shortly but here’s some really helpful tips.
I should mention, before we progress, that I’m not a child psychiatrist and if you’re having serious issues with your child’s fear of birds, it’s best to consult an expert. I have a background in wildlife education, so my expertise come from helping children understand the role of every animal and their place in the world.
What shouldn’t you do if a bird scares your child
Don’t react on a whim.
Especially if those first initial thoughts aren’t helpful. Take a second before you react.
Don’t scare the birds away.
They’re scavengers, this is what they do. Don’t allow them to steal your food of course but you certainly don’t want to scare or hurt the birds. This doesn’t teach children how to respect animals.
Don’t tell your child to harden up.
It’s so easy to do. As a child that was raised with a culture of shaming, it’s unfortunately my default thought. That’s why pausing is so important. Shaming your child is not okay.
What you should do if a bird scares your child
Do. Pick up your child, move away and make them feel safe.
Do. Help them to understand the feelings they’re expressing. I can see those birds really frightened you.
Do. Comfort your child as long as they need it and once they’re calm, talk to them about what happened from a safe distance.
What to do you if your child continues to exhibit a fear of birds?
I handled the incident with my daughters fairly well but I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t scare the birds and I didn’t shame her. I’m still working on explaining emotions without feeling awkward about it.
Unfortunately, after this encounter, my daughter became very scared every time she saw a bird. While her main fear was of ibis, it wasn’t confined to this species alone. I recall a day then she flew off the handle about a willy-wagtail (the size of a small robin) landing on the fence. A willy-wagtail!
That was an emotionally challenged day for her and for me.
It wasn’t long, though, until she started to loving birds. Here’s what I did.
We didn’t avoid places where ibis, and birds in general, reside
As soon as I saw an ibis, I would calmly tell my daughter where it was. I talked about the ibis gently, in positive way and at a very safe distance.
‘Look at their long beak, isn’t it amazing?!’
‘Look at those feathers.’
‘See how he is trying to eat that bit of fruit?’
I would react to my child’s behaviour
If I could see that my daughter was getting uncomfortable, I would address that emotion with her and ask if she would like to move away. I wasn’t shying away from that fearful emotion but I was given her control over it. If she wanted to move away, we would.
Throughout the entire process I was very careful not to push her too far beyond her comfort levels, as this just tends to make the anxiety more severe (a lesson I learned toilet training her).
In my experience, making sure your child feel safe at all times is extremely important.
Notice the moments.
I noticed the moments that she saw an ibis and didn’t react and I told her how impressed I was that she was managing that emotion.
Notice other birds.
Talk about other birds with your child, especially the one’s they’re not frightened of.
We have rainbow lorikeets living around our home. It’s hard not to love a flying rainbow. I encouraged her fascination and love of rainbow lorikeets and used this time to address similarities between the ibis and the lorikeet.
Soon, she didn’t see the ibis as some big scary monster, but as one bird that belongs in a world filled with birds.
Read stories about birds.
Picture books are such a useful tool to help children process complex emotions. Head to your local library and ask your friendly librarians for books that might help with anxiety about birds. They always help find the right stories to help.
I hope my experience and knowledge of connecting children to their natural world was helpful. Next time your child gets scared when the birds decide to hassle you for food at the local duck park, you’ll confidently know just what to do.