Scary good: Why it’s OK for kids to feel frightened sometimes
How to boost a child’s self-confidence with spooky-yet-safe situations
A zombie terrorizing a town or a costume dripping with fake blood is exactly the kind of scary fun that Lila McGinn loves. The 10-year-old has watched just about every episode of The Walking Dead and is already practicing her makeup skills so she can dress up as a bloody bride this Halloween.
“It makes me feel nervous and excited,” Lila says.
Her excitement is physiological: According to pediatric neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein, fear can increase adrenaline, which intensifies feelings of alertness, energy, and strength—something that might explain why haunted houses and scary movies can be such a draw for some. And sociologist Margee Kerr, who’s also a fear specialist and haunted house consultant, adds that the right kind of fright can actually be mentally good for children as well.
The urge to scream when someone playfully pounces from behind a corner is an evolutionary throwback that protects us in threatening situations. But Kerr, author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, says certain scares can elicit another beneficial response: fun.
“It’s such a great opportunity to help kids grow and develop,” she says.
Real life is scary enough, but experts say that experiencing “safe fear” can help children learn to manage their emotions—and boost their self-confidence. And since Halloween is back on after mostly being scuttled last year, parents have an opportunity to provide children with a healthy dose of safe, scary fun.
The science of fear
Experiencing any kind of fear has a physiological effect in both kids and adults. “Every creature has some sort of defensive response that happens automatically when confronted with something that threatens their survival,” Kerr says.
When people feel threatened, their heart rate increases, as do their levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. That helps prepare a body’s fight-or-flight reflex necessary for survival.
“It’s increasing our ability to convert any available resources into energy, getting all of the oxygen in the blood to the muscles at a very basic level that's needed to help us run or fight,” Kerr says.
But because emotions are controlled by the brain and not a physiological response, Goldstein says reaction to fear can be fine-tuned based on the experience. For instance, University of Maryland researchers studying MRI scans found that when people believed they were in control of a stressful situation, “stressor-related responses” decreased in the brain.
Goldstein says it may not be that anyone actually “likes to be scared” as much as they are “willing to be scared” in safe environments. That’s why people’s fear responses to “safe” things like haunted houses can be different from, say, crossing paths with a grizzly on a hiking trail.
“When we know that we're safe—when we know that we can leave a haunted house or turn off a movie, when there's that understanding that you are actually maintaining agency, it has a huge impact on how we manage stress—namely, we manage much better,” Kerr says, pointing to a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
So what makes those “safe scares” so enjoyable for some people? Current context and previous fun-scary experiences can all play a role. But so can your brain’s response.
Recovering from a scary experience releases those fight-or-flight survival responses but also increases the circulation of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and other neurochemical changes associated with feeling good. Kerr says often when we’re not in real danger, people can lean into those feel-good states and therefore have a positive “scary” experience.
Fun fear and a child’s development
Beyond that feel-good boost that a safe scare can provide, Kerr says helping kids embrace frightening-yet-harmless situations might help them manage future stressful situations. One theory, she says, proposes that when adults have increasingly less-severe physiological responses to a momentary fright, their bodies can learn to react more confidently to similar situations in the future. In other words, the memory of overcoming a safe-but-scary event—like the first day of kindergarten—might help a child feel more confident in handling something like playing piano in public later on.
Goldstein, co-author of Tenacity in Children, adds that dealing with harmless fear is similar to the way kids learn from risky play: Each experience teaches them how to cope with and manage stress and that learning can then be applied in other situations.
“Scary fun allows you to explore activities or experiences that in the real world you might avoid,” he says. “Most of us can remember our fear of jumping from the high diving board as a child. Some of us never muster the courage to make the jump, but those of us who do—even if we never try again—gain a level of confidence that becomes generalized to trying other challenging or fearful activities.”
That builds self-confidence, he says, but there’s another reason why trying out “scary things” can be good for a child’s health: When a kid isn’t able to deal with those harmless situations, the results could be devastating.
“When a child is afraid, a cascade of chemicals is released, including cortisol,” Goldstein says. “High levels of cortisol over longer periods of time can be responsible for a host of problems, including depression.”
How to keep fear fun
Halloween hysteria is a great way for kids to start learning how to manage their fear responses. These tips can help.
Let kids control the narrative. Have your children create their own scary stories or build their own haunted house at home. That way they’ll be in charge of just how scary it gets and be able to focus on fun over fear. “For kids who are afraid of a monster, have them write a story about the monster that ends with the monster being their friend or them somehow defeating the monster,” Kerr suggests.
Give kids the power to call it quits. Parental, sibling, or peer pressure can sometimes add to a child’s fears. Instead, make it clear that they can stop the activity at any time. “Just saying that you hope that they enjoy it, and you believe that they can do it, but that there's no shame or judgment if they want to leave it, can go a long way,” Kerr says.
Offer kids the chance to be scary. Dressing up like a ghoul adds a softer touch to Halloween monster lore. And finding fun ways to play in the dark can take the edge off and increase a child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. “You’re basically empowering them to get at fear from the other side,” Kerr says. “And in doing that, they realize it’s all really just pretending.”
Keep fun fear in context. When you’re just beginning to expose your kids to scary ideas, keep it simple. A haunted house will feel less ominous if it’s part of a familiar setting like the school gymnasium and surrounded by not-as-freaky activities, such as bobbing for apples.
Remember that not all fear is equal. Goldstein says that though everyone’s physiological response to fear is the same, the brain’s emotional response is not. “Three children can be waiting to enter the haunted house,” he explains. “All have elevated heart rates but one is excited, the second isn’t so sure, and a third would leave if his two friends weren’t hanging on to him.”
Kerr advises parents to recognize their child’s reaction to scary situations and meet them where they are. For instance, fear fan Lila has a twin brother, Duncan, who’s fear response is usually the opposite of hers. “If we're having a family movie night, we will let him choose,” mom Alanna McGinn says. “If we know we're going to watch a scary movie, he's usually downstairs playing video games.”
Know when to reign in the terror. Not all scares are harmless. If your child is showing interest in something that might be a little too mature or lead to dangerous behavior, ask them to help you understand it. Kerr suggests asking questions like:
• What is it you like about this?
• Which of the characters do you enjoy most?
• Did you read something or see something about this that you really liked?
• How do you feel when you’re watching this? Still concerned? Consider reaching out to a behavioral specialist for advice.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.