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Is Scaring Kids Fun Or Cruel?

With it being the peak of spook season, I thought that it might be a good time to talk about scares in particular scaring children.

As it's around Halloween time, I'm sure it's probably the same for you as it is for me, social media is filled with videos, pictures, and stories of adults wearing costumes and jumping out to scare children, and my question is... is it really a fun prank, or is it more cruel and harmful to their well-being?

Don't get me wrong, I like the spooky Halloween stuff; the decor, the snacks, the costumes.... I will be full transparent though that I have not always been a huge fan of the scary part of Halloween, so I might be a little biased in this, but I want to use my experience to shed a different light on it.


I want to start by sharing one of my own personal stories...

Growing up, as a little kid one of my core Halloween memories was going to my aunt and uncle's house where my uncle would set up a little haunted haunted maze if you will in his garage. It was never really that scary, but there would be little things like if you stepped on certain area a skeleton would fly your head, things like that, and at the end there was always this witch with a cauldron full of green light and dry ice, and it was kind of the climax of this haunted maze. Being a child, this always the perfect level of scare for me, where it was a little spooky and creepy but not really scary.

Fast forward a few years to when I was 8 years old, my mom's work hosted a Halloween party, and she was in charge of putting together the haunted house. I don't remember why, but I spent the day helping her set it up then we put our costumes on and went to the party that night. Because I had helped set it up I was really excited to go through and see what the finished result of this haunted house that we put together. I start walking through and it was way scarier than I had remembered it beings when we were setting it up, and immediately I regretted my decision, but they wouldn't let me leave through the entrance - I had to walk through it, and it was terrifying. Now, as an adult if I were to go through it now, it probably wasn't that bad, but at the time it was awful. It was very scary for me at that age and place I was in my life.

So I get about halfway through this haunted house, and I just completely lose it. I curl up into a ball in the middle of this haunted house, and I'm crying and screaming for my mom, and the guys that were working behind the scenes knew me and knew my mom and I think that they went a little above and beyond for it just because they knew me and thought it would be fun to scare me. They kept saying my name and reaching out very spooky-like, which just made it worse, and no one actually helped or reassured me. Meanwhile I'm in the middle of the floor in a ball screaming until somebody had to go out and tell her I was in the house crying and not moving, until she had to come get me.

To this day, this is a very significant memory in my life, and one of the things I mainly remember was it being something that was joked about, how I freaked out, was a scaredy-cat, how funny it was, etc. But even to this day, I've only gone into a couple of haunted houses now as an adult, but not very many, and I'm actually at a point in my life right now where I just tell people I have no interest in going. I don't want to go, I don't want to be purposefully scared, I don't want to be touched, grabbed, chased, or scared, and I get that it's part of the Halloween season but I want no part of it. And honestly, I think that that would be different had I not been so traumatized from that experience.


This is why I want to talk about this, because a lot of times I see adults say one of two things when it comes to scaring children:

1) This is how we have fun

2) I was scared when I was a kid or this is what I went through, they're going to be fine

To be honest, either way I just am not completely sold on either argument, and this is why...

Let's start with the first point - about having fun.

Now, if you're 100% sure that your child enjoys being scared or is comfortable with it that's one thing, but one of the biggest concerns I have with this argument is that it's usually forced upon children who can't say otherwise. If they're older than 8-10, at least they can tell you if they enjoy being scared because their brains are more formed enough to where they can identify it is just a prank and they're safe regardless. But in seeing most of these pranks are happening with babies and toddlers, these are very strong formative years in their lives, and while it might seem funny to you to scare them and see their reactions, the truth is what you're doing is putting them in a fight vs. flight mode, survival mode, and jarring their nervous system where they have this moment of wondering if they're safe or not.

I know that might sound a little drastic, but really in black and white that's what is happening. It might seem funny to you because you understand that it's a prank or a joke that's for fun, but when they're that young they don't understand that. Again, back to my story of walking through this haunted house, all of the people working there knew that it was a joke and they were having fun trying to scare me, but 8 year old me was literally terrified for her life and safety because my brain couldn't comprehend it as being harmless. So when you're doing this to young children who are in their formative years, it's really instilling these core beliefs with around what safety and security is, and I'll say now for me as an adult I'm still very easily spooked. I can be very jumpy, anxious, and fearful, and this is something that I'm trying to work through now and reparent myself on, what is safe vs. unsafe, and when to be concerned or not, directly because of moments like this where people thought it was fun to scare me until I became almost constantly on edge in regards to my safety.

The thing we need to remember is that even if you consciously know that you're safe, you're unconscious - the part of your mind that's there to protect you - immediately lights up as something feels dangerous or unsafe, which is what triggers that fight or flight mode. Now, I'm not here to tell you how you should or should not have fun with your children, but I'm curious if you're feeling a little called out or defensive about this at all, are there any other ways that you can have fun with them that don't involve scaring them? If scaring or pranking each other is how you have fun or bond with your children, have you tried exploring any other ways? I invite you to do some exploring if not.