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Scary stories may be good for children

September 26, 2016 0 Comments


Halloween is nearly upon us. Jack-o-lanterns grin from atop porches. Cardboard witches and skeletons dangle from doorways. Fake spider webs hang between tree branches, sometimes adorned with their very own plastic arachnid – or two.

During this spooky season, children may feel frightened, gleeful or both. There’s a reason why kids like to tell scary stories around a campfire, even when they know they’ll have nightmares later.

But is being frightened good for children?

Realizing courage

“Fear is a natural response,” said child psychologist Emma Kenny in an interview with The Guardian. “And when you are reading a scary story to a child, or they’re reading to themselves, the child has got a level of control – they can put it down, or ask you to stop. And the story can raise a discussion, in which they can explore and explain the way they feel about a situation.”

Kenny also had an interview with The Book People, an online bookseller. The Book People recently completed a survey in which they examined whether or not parents felt comfortable reading scary books to their children. A third of the people who responded would avoid a book if it contained a frightening character, such as the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or the Child Catcher from “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.”

When asked whether she believed fear was an important emotion for children to experience, Kenny agreed wholeheartedly.

“Absolutely! In fact fear is imperative in realising (British spelling) courage. Essentially when we learn to cope with our fears, it enables us to take healthy risks, and positive risk taking is associated with a whole host of positive traits. These include resilience, a sense of agency, great communication and a willingness to try new things.”

Kenny went on to warn parents about wrapping children up in “cotton wool,” or needlessly sheltering them from negative things in the world.

“We know that people who take risks, in the long term, do better than those who don’t … And how can you feel safe and secure until you know what it’s like to be afraid? Anything that gives you a wide range of emotions in a safe and controlled environment is great.”

Maintaining control

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that frightening experiences CAN harm children. It’s not a bad idea to make sure the movie is geared toward their age group when showing children a scary movie (for example, The Nightmare Before Christmas), but it IS a bad idea to force them to watch that same movie if they don’t want to see it.

The key is control. It’s possible to pause a frightening movie. Books with scary characters can be easily placed down on the bedside table. When things get too frightening or overwhelming, you might want to switch over to a more pleasant story.

“Children are pretty capable of letting you know when they feel unhappy or scared and if they are asking you to stop reading then it’s best to do so,” says Kenny.

This Halloween, parents of young children shouldn’t shy away from spooky stories or scary decorations – unless their child asks them to, of course.

After all, Halloween is the season for safely exploring negative emotions from the comfort of your own porch.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school designed to help teen boys who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness and other behavioral disorders including anxiety. All students who attend White River Academy are provided with therapists, psychiatrists and certified teachers who have been specially trained to help adolescents regain control of their lives. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. 

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We would like to thank all the wonderful staff at WRA for the great parent weekend. We enjoyed it and felt that we learned valuable insights on Positive Peer Culture and the values we must have and the importance of family commitment to each other...

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