A little bit of scary can be exciting and help kids understand their fears.
- Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
Many kids count Halloween as their favorite day of the year. And it’s not just about going out and getting lots of candy. Most kids relish the spine-tingling attributes of Halloween, maybe because deep down they know it’s not real. For these kids, it’s usually about the spooky atmosphere that surrounds the holiday. Listening to and telling creepy stories, carving pumpkins, yelling “Boo!,” putting on a mask and costume, and pretending to be someone else for the night — usually a bigger and badder someone — are all part of the fun of Halloween.
For most kids, adjusting to a bit of scariness is a part of typical growth and development. Scary movies and books have long been a staple of childhood, a source of excitement and acceptable risk. Who can forget the first time one watched “The Wizard of Oz” and saw the Wicked Witch of the West in all her glory? For thousands of years, parents have told children fairy tales that have scary themes, in part to instill the appropriate amount of wariness about real-world dangers.
For most kids, adjusting to a bit of scariness is a part of typical growth and development.
We live in a world full of dangers and horrors that give kids and adults a legitimate reason to be scared. Most well-adjusted adults have learned to compartmentalize their fears about scary things such as terrorism, global warming, diseases and school shootings; otherwise they would be paralyzed and unable to take care of their present needs and responsibilities. It’s imperative that adults help kids to manage their fears and focus on only the types of things that they can control.
Halloween, with its make-believe ghosts, witches, vampires and other monsters, is a great chance to learn how to handle a small amount of fear and fright. A little bit of scary can be exciting and help children realistically understand their fears, learn to make light of them and figure out how to seek out help and support to overcome them. Because many childhood fears are unrealistic, it’s important to give your child the skills necessary to overcome some scariness.
Here are some ways you can help make scary good.
- 1. Curate creepy. Find things that makes scary into exciting and unpredictable, rather than anxiety-producing and frightening. Riding a rollercoaster or reading a mystery together can be fun and a bit hair-raising. Go see a movie in the theater such as Goosebumps or Pan.
- 2. Take off your mask. Help children to see that what might appear to be scary on the outside is not necessarily threatening on the inside. Before Halloween go to a store and look at the many different costumes that people will be wearing. With younger kids, ask trick-or-treaters to take off their masks so they can see that scary is not real.
- 3. Let your kids scare you. Encourage them to put on their Halloween costumes and try to scare you. Pretend to be scared while laughing at the same time. Making light of being scared teaches kids to adapt to frightening situations.
- 4. Be considerate and aware of developmental issues. Younger children are usually more easily scared than older ones. Some kids are simply developmentally behind: There are kids who might be ready for Harry Potter at the age of 9, while others might be frightened by these themes until their teenage years. Gradually allow kids access to scary material as they mature.
- 5. Take special precautions with an anxious child. If you have a child who is anxious as a general rule, be very cautious about the types of materials to which he is exposed. Keep him away from scary movies and books and protect him from real-world issues that are truly frightening. But keep in mind that preparing your child for some of the scary things in the world is often more important than protecting him from them.
Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids.