Every new era of pop culture brings with it a fresh cast of creepy characters sure to frighten the living daylights out of vulnerable kids.
Children of the ‘80s and ‘90s were terrified by Gremlins, Chucky, Freddy Krueger and the Grim Reaper. Millennials lost sleep over the likes of The Joker, Pennywise, Paranormal Activity, and countless incarnations of zombies. And for Generation Z, it’s not only scary movies and TV they have to contend with – but sinister internet memes, too, like the ill-fated Momo.
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While it can be easy to laugh off childhood fears once we’re adults, they’re no laughing matter for kids who are suffering from nightmares or fear of the dark. No matter how fictional, scary characters can become all too real in the imagination of a young child.
To help parents respond to their childrens’ fears, Hope 103.2 chatted to clinical psychologist Tony Ritchie for some expert advice.
How to Comfort Your Scared Child
1 – Take Their Fear Seriously
Before trying to pull apart your child’s fear, your first step as a parent or caregiver is to take him or her seriously. Don’t dismiss the fear as silly or ‘childish’, as that may shut your child down and stop them from sharing. Instead, help them to know that their fear is a normal, understandable reaction.
“Talk with your child about their fear, and help them understand that what they’ve seen is meant to be scary… it is designed to scare people, and other children have been scared by this too,” said Tony. “Maybe you’ve even been scared by [the character] yourself.”
2 – Foster a Sense of Safety
Reassure your child that you understand their fear and that they are safe.
Take time to comfort them. “Offer to sit with them for a while until they feel more comfortable,” says Tony.
Your unhurried presence on its own can help those “monsters under the bed” to disappear, or become just a harmless memory.
3 – Separate Reality From Fiction
Break down the fear your child is experiencing, by teaching them a bit about what goes on behind the scenes in TV, movies or on the internet.
“Help your child understand the difference between reality and fiction,” Tony says. “Discuss how people on the internet deliberately make things up sometimes to try and scare people,” Tony says. “And reassure them that what they are saying is not true.”
If your child has been scared by a movie character, you could also show them a picture of the actor without their make up on, and discuss how movies work.
It’s the same tactic as teaching a fearful flier about aircraft and aerodynamics: you’re removing the mystery.
4 – Have Some Fun With the Fear
Another way to diminish your child’s fear of something is to have some fun with it, says Tony.
“Imagine their fear dressed up in different ways,” he suggests. “For example, imagine dressing up Pennywise from IT in funny clothing, roller skates, make him sneeze sausages from his nose, and put funny balloons in his hair – you get the gist. You could also role-play some funny things you could say to the thing that your child is fearing.”
By doing these imagination exercises, your child begins to face their fear in a non-threatening way, and learns that it can’t harm them.
Encourage Honesty Around Internet Use
When children are scared by something they’ve seen online or on TV, often their fear is compounded by worries about “getting in trouble” if their parent or guardian finds out. As a result, their fear can grow even bigger.
And sadly, well-meaning parents often encourage secrecy unwittingly, by shutting down conversations, over-reacting in a fearful way to media and online content, or doling out harsh punishment for inappropriate viewing.
“Teach them that it’s important to talk to you about anything that concerns them—and that they won’t be in trouble.”
Tony’s advice is to foster open conversations, and help children learn how to make wise choices for themselves when they do encounter scary or sexualised content.
“Teach them that it’s important that they talk with you about anything that concerns them—and that they won’t be in trouble for this.”
“Foster a sense of working together to manage technology, rather than the focus being on punishment for poor use.”
Rather than punishing or shaming your child over their use of technology, instead be proactive and come up with boundaries that make sense.
“Place appropriate boundaries around your kids’ viewing and use this as an opportunity to discuss healthy choices, and the dangers of seeking inappropriate material online,” he said.