When we think of anxiety, we think of avoiding scary things. That’s why it’s so odd when anxious kids (and anxious people in general) seek out scary things that will seemingly only increase anxiety. Many of the kids I work with are extremely anxious. They are afraid of being away from parents, sleeping in their own beds or of someone breaking into their house during the middle of the night. Many of these same kids are talking about watching scary Halloween movies and dressing up in scary costumes in less than one week, as they go trick-or-treating in the dark streets on the holiday famed for scaring us.
Halloween is a time of adrenaline, and scary things create all sorts of brain chemicals that leave us wanting more. As I wrote in my book, Flooded, when it comes to brain chemicals, we have little control. When a chemical makes us feel good, we can hardly resist the behavior. As it turns out, dopamine and endorphins are also released when we face something terrifying and are able to escape it. An anxious kid I met with this week told me he was planning a repeated visit to a haunted house. He was animated as he shared, “This guy with a chainsaw was chasing me! I didn’t think I could get away!” And here he is, going back for more.
There is a second reason anxious kids seek scary things – and that is to gain some control over them. When kids face something that is designed to be scary and survive it, they feel the accomplishment of surviving it. If a child is afraid of ghosts but then dresses like a ghost on Halloween, the power is taken out of it. The same goes for hearing spooky sounds. If your child is able to face their fear, walk up to the front door and get a full size candy bar out of it, there is some good incentive to overcome the fear.
As a parent, set good boundaries around what your child has access to this time of year. Don’t promote scary shows or scary costumes, and especially haunted houses. But also don’t be surprised if your child wants to subject themselves to terrifying situations either. Allow your child to engage in what is developmentally appropriate but give them an out. Let them know they can always change their mind.
Years ago, some friends of mine talked me into going into a haunted house. I narrowly survived (in my own mind) but the lesson was learned. Too scary for me. I’m never going back. Sometimes, kids need to learn this hard lesson on their own. Some things are just not worth it. As parents, we pick them up, dust them off and make it okay to choose otherwise next time.
I hope you all have a safe and anxiety-free Halloween,