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.
Next, I often see or hear the argument of, "When I was a child....., you're overreacting, don't be so sensitive" argument, and for that I just want to remind everyone that everybody is different and certain people are more sensitive to things than others, and that's okay. My question is for what purpose do you want to continue traumatizing somebody if you know that it's probably hurting them? Why would you continue to do it? Because I honestly don't understand why you would want to put a child into that fight or flight mode for your own entertainment, and why the expectation is that they just need to be okay with it because it's what you went through. You are two different people who are going to process things completely differently. And again, your kid might be fine with it and that's totally cool if you have that understanding, but if they aren't why continue to subject them to it?
This is why I wanted to share my own personal experience here, because growing up that was the message given to me through a lot of my life,
"You're too sensitive"
"You need to harden up"
"You need to get over it"
"You need to quit over-reacting"
"It's just a joke"
"Don't be so sensitive"
"You're hurting my feelings because you're being so emotional"
But at the end of the day, I have learned, "NO, I'm not being too sensitive. This is something that really affects me, and I don't like it, and that should be respected."
The sensitives of the world shouldn't have to harden themselves for others. We shouldn't have to change who we are or put ourselves in perceive dangerous situations just to fit in and be accepted by others - and children are included within that. And it's important to note that the attitude of, "I went through it, so now you have to" trickles down, and is not a healthy attitude to pass down. And I have another little story here about this...
A few years ago, I was working as a kindergarten after school teacher in Los Angeles. A lot of the parents of the kids that we had in our class would work within the the film industry, and I remember having this student who's dad was a producer and he would constantly watched movies which she would watch with him, and he let her watch horror movies.
She came in around Halloween time, and although she never said the title of the movie, she started describing different scenes from the movie The Sixth Sense. Mind you, this was a class of five and six year old's, so she had described these scenes in detail to some of the other kids, and a few of them got really scared to the point where three of the other girls in the class would not go to the bathroom by themselves because they were terrified that if they went in there a ghost would get them.
So I sat down with this girl to talk to her about it, and how it might not be the most appropriate thing to talk to with them because she was really scaring them, and she actually made that exact comment, "Well my dad let me watch it and I'm fine, so they should be fine too." So I reassured her that it's okay if she's fine with it, but that they're not her, and everyone has different things that scare them and to different extents that it scares them, and if you can see how strongly it's affecting them why would you want to purposefully want hurt them and scare them to where they can't go to the bathroom by themselves? We just need to be more mindful about how what we're saying is affecting others, because it's not nice to purposefully hurt them. She agreed, acknowledged it, and it wasn't a big deal. She was able to comprehend and take it seriously enough to start being mindful and changing her behaviors. I feel like if a six year old can do it, adults should be able to as well.
This attitude needs to shift, because just because you went through something and we're okay doesn't necessarily mean that someone else needs to be subjected to it or are going to be okay if they do. We're all different people going through different things in our lives, and again why would we want to purposefully hurt, scare, or harm these younger beings? Don't we want better for them? Don't we want them to be sensitive to the safety and wellbeing of themselves and others instead of desensitized?
Again, I'm not trying to criticize or shame anyone, or tell you how to raise your children, but I do want to plant a seed as a little food for thought moving forward on the curiosity around if it really is acceptable or is it a little too harsh to scare children? How can we be little more intentional in the ways that we have fun with children, especially in the developmental years, so they don't have to reparent themselves later on as adults?