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Find Your Brave! Dealing with children’s fears.

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To become brave, children need to experience fear and learn to tolerate it. Reading scary stories together can help them with that. Ray Robertson reports
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Halloween is a strange sort of festival, one that cuts with a double-edged sword. Despite all the treats, sinister tricks lurk in the shadows. Children revel in the dressing up and love eating all the candy, but the supernatural element of things that go bump in the night is never far from their minds. And yet, or perhaps because of this, children love All Hallows’ Eve.

As parents, we have a responsibility to know the limits of what our children can handle. We don’t want to force them to hear a scary story, if they’re not ready for it. On the other hand, we can’t protect them from their own developing emotions, emotions that are best explored and managed in the safety of their homes and with the attention of their parents.

It’s important that children learn to handle feeing afraid, and one of the best places for them to do that is in the pages of a book.

ONCE UPON A TIME

The first scary books most kids read, or have read to them are fairy tales. Our children are weaned on versions of the Brothers Grimm’s medieval morality tales, in which beasts and innocents face off in dark forests or forbidding castles. The consequences of these clashes aren’t always pretty, and there’s a lot of fear to get through before the ‘happily ever after’. Classic fairy stories from Sleeping Beauty to Snow White are big on dark supernatural forces – wicked witches cast cruel spells that mess with fair maiden.

These stories have some really tough life lessons to impart (that have nothing to do with magic), and this is one of the reasons we continue to read them to our kids. But we also continue to read them to our kids simply because kids love them.
Of course, kids love all the good magic that’s expressed in fairy stories – fairy godmothers turn rags into ballgowns, animals talk and everything ends happily. So, is it that which makes them love fairy stories, that prevents them from simply being scared witless by them? In par t. But it’s important to know that children learn to make the distinction between fantasy and reality very early on. By age seven, most kids know the difference between what is real and what is not and, once they are able to do this, most can cope with the scares they experience in the make-believe world of a book.

It’s true that scary stories can cause nightmares (none of us has ever really come to terms with the horror of Bambi’s mother’s death) but generally speaking, the fears children experience in made-up stories are manageable. Kids can handle the fears they face in Neverland because Neverland doesn’t actually exist.

Kids are instinctively drawn to scary things because they rely on the continuing safety of the real world. And in the real world, ghosts and witches and evil fairies don’t exist. Reading scary stories means visiting places where impossible things are suddenly, temporarily, possible. In this way, scary stories play an important role in children’s emotional education, allowing them to identify and control their fears. They give them the chance to experience a really potent fantasy and almost live it, without any of the consequences. They get to experience fear in a controlled environment (in the fantastical world of the book) in the safety of their own homes. The best children’s books are written in such a way as to help kids differentiate between what is real and what is not. A common device sees a book open in the real world, one with which young readers are familiar, that is populated by characters not unlike themselves. Then, after a page or two, something happens to these characters, which means they transition into a world of make-believe. The Pevensies walk through a wardrobe and find themselves in Narnia, Max goes to sleep before sailing through night and day to meet the Wild Things. Children know when the bridge between reality and fantasy has been crossed, and they adjust their fear threshold accordingly.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER
The other side of it is that kids, like adults, actually like to suspend disbelief every now and then, and really feel the fear. It’s fun for them to get so caught up in a scary book that they scream when the flying monkeys swoop down on Dorothy, or when James attacks Bella in the dance studio. What they are enjoying is the thrill, the hyperarousal of the fightor- flight response within safe parameters.

Essentially then, kids are turned on by fear and their ability, through reading, to confront it and cast it aside. They find a way to control how scared they want to be. Scary stories help turn children into readers; the adrenaline rush of seeking out danger and then stepping away is what makes them return for more. It’s exciting for them to discover that they can get through the fear, and that they can put the book down whenever they choose.

Children benefit from all this because they learn to grapple with the range of emotions – anxiety, sorrow, confusion, surprise, anger – that fear invites. They come away from a scary story with new tools for managing or controlling their reactions to fear. Call it a new confidence or self-awareness, but it becomes part of how they deal with trauma going forward. Essentially, what children learn is courage. It becomes easier to stand up to a bully at school once you have fought ghosts, monsters or zombies within the pages of a book.

There are multiple reasons why book series like Harry Potter and Twilight captivate young readers. Children connect to the vulnerability of the characters, they live vicariously through their potentially fatal challenges and, when the last page is turned, they return to their real lives having survived Voldemort or the Volturi.

Vampires are scary. Dementors are too. Kids love to be scared, but not too scared. A parent’s job is to understand this, to invite discussion and make a variety of stories available. And to leave the night light on.

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