Almost every fall, parents and even some educators ask me questions about sharing scary stories with kids. In some cases, they’re concerned about how a young child might react to a truly horrifying character or a particularly creepy situation in a story. Sometimes, they are worried that a child might feel overwhelmed by the intensity of a scene. In other situations, they’re concerned that kids might believe in the power of witchcraft or magic.
These questions raise legitimate concerns, and it would never be wise to expose a young child to Stephen King’s amazing stories or Anne Rice’s vampire novels in early primary grades. Using common sense to determine what is appropriate for each child is still the best guideline for sharing scary stories. For example, I loved reading Edgar Allen Poe’s stories when I was 10 or 11 years old, but I would have been terrified, if I tried to read them or listened to these same stories when I was 6 or 7 years old.
When in doubt, I recommend asking a veteran children’s librarian, who can help select from “librarian approved scary stories” that are appropriately scary for the age and maturity of a particular child. With this caveat in mind, it’s important to remember that scary stories can make a unique and valuable contribution to any child’s social and emotional development.
Fear is a powerful emotion that some scientist credit with helping our species survive. In fact, many people have an instinctive fear of snakes, leeches, rats, or spiders. The modern celebration of Halloween is one of the most highly anticipated fall events in our society. Although Halloween originated over 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celts, today, adults as well as kids, look forward to dressing in costumes, visiting “haunted houses”, and telling scary stories. Feeling afraid can be exciting and intriguing for kids of all ages, from 7 to 75.
With this background in mind, I would argue that scary stories for kids are more important now than ever before in today’s increasingly “sanitized” world. Let’s explore how scary stories for kids can effectively contribute to a child’s emotional and emotional development.
1. Scary stories can model powerful life lessons
When we confront fear in a scary story, our bodies experience a “rush” of excitement from the chemical release of hormones, enabling us to experience and explore our fear in a “safe” situation. The pleasure of reading or listening to a really good scary story can be like the thrill of riding a speeding roller coaster around a blind curve and dropping thirty feet only to discover that we’re okay and we’re actually enjoying the ride. Both experiences help kids exercise their emotions in a secure place with low risk of physical injury.
We sometimes minimize the benefit of improved self-esteem that kids feel when they face their fears and discover that they are stronger than they thought. Learning that it’s okay to be afraid and that fear can be a useful emotion is an important life lesson for any child.
Experiencing fear while reading a well-crafted scary story is a unique way for a child to learn to manage fear to achieve a desired result, like seeing how the story ends. If a child never learns to experience and manage fear, then how will he or she learn to cope with their fears when they inevitably confront situations that can feel overwhelming in life? Scary stories provide a unique way to experience fear in a “safe” place while learning that fear can be managed and even used as a motivation to act.
2. It’s okay to feel afraid
Scary stories for kids can help children learn that it’s okay to feel fear. Ghost stories demonstrate to children that it’s not only okay to be afraid, but fear can be useful in helping them learn how to solve problems.
Award-winning author, Roberta Simpson Brown, “Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales” and a retired educator believes that scary stories teach children that it’s all right to be afraid. In an interview she shared that, “Scary stories can serve as kind of a sounding board. Kids can realize that they’re not the only ones afraid, and also that it’s okay to be afraid. Then it helps them identify their fear so they can deal with it. They can find different solutions, or if there is no solution, then at least they can get information about how to deal with it.”
She points out that, “Scary stories are so important because everybody is afraid of something. Fear is something we all have in common.” scary stories help us realize that everyone is afraid of something and that it is healthy to face our fears.
3. Learning Resiliency
Think about it: childhood can be a very scary time for kids. Kids are physically smaller than adults, have less power than adults and are dependent on family and sometimes even strangers for care, feeding, and security. Managing these factors alone would be enough for many adults to feel anxious, especially if they were surrounded by people who were physically much larger and who exercised power over meeting their needs. Young children manage to live under those conditions every day.
Fortunately, children flourish when they learn to use their emotional tools to effectively handle a range of life experiences. Sometimes as adults, we forget that starting school each fall, learning to ride a bike, performing a skit at school, or moving to a new neighborhood are significant challenges for kids. It’s natural and even healthy to feel some anxiety in these situations. The key is learning to take action to avoid feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed with fear.
Today, we frequently reduce the risks of failing for kids, to make them feel safer. As a result, scary stories filled with an appropriate level of scary ghosts, monsters, or trolls may help kids learn how to recognize a threatening situation, how to effectively respond to danger, and even learn how to face their fears to solve a problem - especially when they’re scared or feeling anxious.
When a protagonist in a scary story confronts her fears to resolve a conflict and then conquers a threatening enemy, kids observe a role-model for managing their fears and moving forward with their lives. If they’re not exposed to these positive role models in scary stories, are we inadvertently making it more difficult for them to learn resiliency?
Learning to effectively manage stress in today’s ever-changing world may be one of the biggest challenges for kids growing up. Unfortunately, anxiety can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially for young adults. I sometimes wonder if we are “cheating” children by not giving them incremental opportunities to experience fear and learn to accept that it’s okay to feel afraid?
Scary stories for kids provide a simple, effective, and safe way to experience fears and practice coping with anxiety in low-risk situations.
Combining these three factors:
1. Recognizing the power of feeling fear
2. Learning that it’s okay to feel afraid
3. Internalizing resilient role models helps children prepare to manage the inevitable stresses of modern life.
Scary stories that push kids out of their “safe zones” may help them build confidence and even foster a greater understanding of how to cope with threatening situations. Why would we want to take away these unique learning opportunities?
One thing we know is that well-crafted scary stories for kids will continue to be loved by countless generations of young readers because they are just so much fun to experience and share.
So, whenever kids have 10-15 spare minutes when assignments end before lunch, or it’s not quite time to pack up for the day, why not reach for a copy of Roberta Simpson Brown’s Scariest Stories Ever Told, Tim Tingle’s Spirits Light and Dark or The August House Book of Scary Stories and share a scary story or two?
Not only will kids love to listen to these classic stories, but they may even learn some valuable life lessons.