How Scary is Too Scary?
My younger sister and I frequently stayed at my grandparents’ house during the summers of my childhood. We were watching TV one rainy afternoon, and a commercial appeared advertising a miniseries based on the book “IT” by Stephen King. I wouldn’t have paid much attention except that it was starring Jonathan Brandis—my childhood celebrity crush. Although I knew that Stephen King wrote adult-themed horror stories, my child’s mind rationalized: “It has a clown in it, so it can’t be that scary. Plus—Jonathan Brandis! I’ve read the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series, so I’m pretty sure I won’t get scared.” I rushed to my grandfather to ask if my sister and I could stay up late to watch “a movie” that night, and he gave us permission.
That was a mistake! My sister and I were scared out of our minds! I don’t think either of us slept very much that night, and any sleep we did get was filled with nightmares of killer clowns hiding underneath the bed, waiting to grab our feet if we dared to get out. Needless to say, we were not allowed to watch the finale the next night, and we were in a LOT of trouble for lying to my grandfather about the type of movie we were watching. (Side note: Even though I have read and enjoyed numerous Stephen King books since then, including “IT,” clowns still creep me out a little bit!)
Halloween is typically a time of year when many of us seek out scary and spooky things, and various industries are all too happy to oblige. From horror movies opening in theaters during the month of October to Halloween costumes featuring “realistic blood capsules!” and various fake weapons, and lawn decorations which can simulate a gruesome murder scene, images with blood, guts and gore surround us in the weeks leading up to Halloween. As adults, whether we view such things with excitement or disgust, most are able to distinguish these as disconnected from reality. What about kids though, who may not be able to separate fantasy from reality so easily? How do we talk with kids about the difference between fun spooky things and those that truly terrify (or that are not developmentally appropriate)? How do we set limits with kids around those images that might be genuinely frightening, and encourage them to set limits for themselves as well?
It is pretty normal for most young children to have very active imaginations; imaginations which can sometimes turn normal everyday objects and sounds into terrifying creatures and scenarios. Most parents of young children have had the experience of demonstrating to their child that the “monster” in the corner of the bedroom is, in fact, a carelessly tossed jacket and pair of shoes, or that the “creature” scratching at the window is simply an overgrown tree branch.
While haunted houses and dressing up in scary costumes are part of celebrating Halloween for many families, it’s a good idea for parents to discuss with their younger children how they feel about the images that tend to be everywhere this time of year. If your child does disclose a fear to you, validate that feeling because it is real to your child, even if it doesn’t make sense from an adult perspective. Responses such as: “That’s silly! There’s nothing to be scared of! Don’t be a baby!” will only shut down the communication between you. Talk with your child about their fears during a calm time and problem-solve ways that can help them feel in control. For example, could a nightlight or flashlight help to distinguish nighttime fears from reality, or a simple mantra or phrase (such as “It’s only my toys, not a monster”)? Sometimes, having more education about a fear can be useful in overcoming it. One child I know was convinced that her house was going to burn down while she was sleeping. She was greatly helped in overcoming this fear by having her parents show her where the smoke alarms and fire extinguishers were located, as well as helping her parents to test the batteries in the smoke alarms regularly.
It can also be useful to talk about some ways that they can set limits for themselves when they know that something might be too much for them to handle. For example, if your child’s friend wants her to go on a haunted hayride, or go see a scary movie, you can help her to come up with some phrases to use to set limits with her friend about what she feels comfortable doing. Of course, you also have the right to set your own limits around what is age-appropriate for your child to do and watch as well.
Lastly, be aware of signs that the line has been crossed from having fun to being truly scared. Some of those signals might include your child having trouble falling asleep, having nightmares, developing rituals (such as holding their breath or running past certain houses), avoiding situations, or having an unexpected emotional response (such as crying, screaming/ yelling or becoming agitated). Of course, you know your child best. Trust your instincts; if your child is behaving in an unusual way, then they may be truly afraid of something.
Halloween can be a fun time to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating. It’s also a great opportunity to talk about the difference between fantasy and reality, and effective ways to handle the twinges of fear when things go “bump” in the night.