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Season of Fear: How Parents Can Support Their Kids?

Posted By Beryl Ann Cowan, Ph.D.

During the fall season, we are surrounded by images of ghosts, goblins, monsters, zombies, you name it, and now, sadly, creepy clowns. On the news, we both hear about and view images of war torn countries, children and families dying in refugee camps, and communities ravaged by hurricanes.  On TV, radio, and in social media the presidential election, and even local campaigns, are often presented in apocalyptic terms:  voter choices have become equated with issues of safety for individuals and our nation as a whole. Discussions about current events at school, amongst family members and friends often become highly personalized, polarizing or emotionally unsettling.

It is hard to live in a bubble – at some level adults and children are exposed to what is happening around them.  How are children and teens managing such spooky messages? Should we ignore what’s happening and wait for our kids to approach us about things that worry or frighten them? Is it best to shield our kids as much as possible from distressing events and messages or expect them to use common sense?  As a child, adolescent and family psychologist- my job is to listen to fears and to help those that I work with develop coping strategies. What follows are some ways to think about how kids approach fear from a developmental perspective and steps to take to help your child or teen navigate events and messages surrounding them.

Fearful responses often depend on age, temperament, the content or proximity of a scary idea or event, and past or present experiences. As a starting point, it’s often useful to consider whether your child believes whether something scary is pretend or real and whether the feared event is more likely than not going to harm them or someone they love.  Developmental processes play a critical role in how we manage fearful images or thoughts:  for example preschoolers and many elementary age youngsters, when compared with older children , are still working through concepts of what is real versus make-believe, and are thus likely to lack a firm grasp on where “pretend “ transforms into “danger”. Youngsters, likewise, may not know how far away they are from a dangerous event taking place: is their neighborhood safe, and will harm befall themselves, their families or their neighbors?   Helping children establish boundaries between fantasy and reality is useful as is creating a context for the proximity of a looming event. Parents need to emphasize that ghosts, goblins and monsters are not real, even if some people enjoy dressing up as them in costumes during Halloween season. Whenever possible, adults need to let children know that the likelihood of something scary happening to them is low or nonexistent. Where danger does exist, such as in cases of natural disasters, adults need to assure children that preparations are underway to protect their safety. Under circumstances where random events are happening or being discussed in the media, such as the recent emergence of the creepy clown phenomena, adults and appropriate age children should develop an open line of communication about fears and action plans.

Variations in temperament and experience also impact how children process fear. Some children have a higher tolerance than others for scary images and find spooky characters fun to emulate. Still others may act tough- and then hit a wall and become freaked out when it is least expected. Youngsters who tend to be shy, depressed or anxious are more likely to be fearful of scary characters and distressing events. It is important to recognize that youngsters who have experienced a traumatic or highly stressful event, including exposures to domestic or community violence, are more likely to be psychologically vulnerable when faced with any scary image or discussion of unpredictable and potentially harmful circumstances.