A Good Scare

Dr. Ashley Miller, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist on November 01, 2016

It’s the morning after Halloween, and tired kids everywhere, still crashing from their sugar highs, are headed off to school.  Hopefully everyone has had a fun and safe Halloween- but not too safe.  After all, what is Halloween if not a time to help kids test their limits of fear? 

Growing up, I was far from the bravest kid on the block.  I was the one who wanted her parents to stay at birthday parties and never climbed to the top of the jungle gym.  But much to my parents’ credit, they never let me shy away from something that could be frightening.  In my early teen years, we watched a whole bunch of classic 80s horror movies.  While on the surface, this wouldn’t seem like a great parenting move, for a cautious and tense kid like me, it was the absolute best.

There’s a big difference between experiencing things alone and with a parent.  Watching  and discussing horror movies with my mom gave me the message that the dark stuff  wasn’t taboo, and neither was my fear.     

I’m not saying that horror films are for everyone.  Some more sensitive or imaginative kids really do need to be much older before they can separate fact from fiction, but sharing scary stories has always been an important part of growing up.  Think of the Harry Potter phenomenon.   Of course kids love magic, but kids also like being treated like capable people, and J.K. Rowling appeals to the bravest and best self of children.  Children need opportunities to be superheroes and knights and warriors.  In fact, the popular Taming Worry Dragons anxiety treatment group, developed by Dr. Jane Garland and Dr. Sandra Clark, combines standard cognitive behavioral therapy with the mythical qualities of our best children’s stories.   The trick to beating anxiety is encouraging “brave behavior”, not avoiding fear, and caregivers are the best guides on their children’s adventure.

Anxiety isn’t the only mental health disorder that they can grow stronger when there is a lot of emotional avoidance.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) thrives on avoiding things that are disgusting or embarrassing.  That’s why the treatment is actually exposure to the very things (like dirt or germs) that sufferers avoid.   Likewise, when someone is frequently angry but holds it back- usually to avoid hurting someone’s feelings- it can result in feelings of depression.  One day, I was driving and listening to the radio when the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” came on.  Within a few minutes, apparently for no reason, I started crying.  It’s a song that expresses anger, and more to the point, anger at being mistreated.  I realized that I had been feeling really angry towards someone and I didn’t even know it.  The song unleashed it for me.  Letting myself feel and admit my anger was the first step in releasing myself from sadness and eventually resolving the conflict.

Physical health problems like headaches and abdominal pain can also get stronger when emotions are avoided.  The same is true for eating disorders.  Pain seems to always look for expression, because what we really need is a response from others.  Most of us learn to avoid strong emotions when we’re young because reigning ourselves in actually helps us gain more acceptance with our families.  Most caregivers are more comfortable with certain emotions in their children (like joy) and less comfortable with others (like shame and anger).  Each of us is unique in these ways.  It’s helpful as caregivers to reflect on which emotions were easier for our parents to accept in us, and then to also think about which ones are easiest and most difficult for us to accept now.

Many people worry that expressing too much emotion or negativity might be damaging.  There is certainly importance in learning to express ourselves constructively.  But, even with angry kids and teens, the issue at heart is usually emotional avoidance.  Only this time, they tend to be avoiding hurt, shame or fear.  It can be easier to yell, threaten or punch someone than to admit you care enough about their rejection to feel really hurt.  Anger is strong and “in control” whereas hurt is vulnerable.  Most of us have witnessed that when we can (safely) stay with a kid’s anger long enough, it will almost always melt into tears.   Sometimes one emotion is just a costume disguising another.

Halloween is a great opportunity for everyone to let down their guard and laugh at themselves.  I think that’s one of the reasons it’s such a popular holiday.  But anytime of year can be a great time to challenge ourselves and our children against the fear of embarrassment.  My favorite therapeutic “homework” is for caregivers of kids who are really sensitive to shame: it’s to practice doing really silly things at home.  This week, we gave a mom this prescription: “eat dinner with a spaghetti noodle on your face and pretend nothing weird is happening”.  Exposure to goofiness can be healing for everyone.  In the end, mental health isn’t an absence of negative emotions, but the ability to feel and accept the full range of feelings.  So before you pack the Halloween costumes and decorations away for another year, consider surprising your kid with something extra spooky, gross or just plain embarrassing.

*Photo by flickr user KaroliK view the original publication here


Wow, so much of this was so helpful. Thank you! This has inspired me to take action on a few things, and to see those items with humor and excitement rather than fear.

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