Werewolves and monsters and ghosts, oh my? For some toddlers, the appeal of the spooky is even stronger than their desire to have sweet dreams as they sleep through the night. Others want Halloween to last all year long, and still others still don’t seem scared of any of the things concerned parents or other adults might think of as “scary.” There are a few reasons young children can be drawn to the spookier side, which can leave parents in the tricky situation of balancing their support for their child’s interests with making sure they’re not exposed to anything too scary starting too young.
Why do some children love scary things so much?
For one thing, they might not actually be all that scared. Toddlers don’t always have the same frame of reference for what’s ‘scary’ that adults do – a lot of fear has to do with instinct and jump scares, it’s true, but a lot more has to do with context, and to toddlers, who so much of the world is still new to, sometimes the context just isn’t there yet. If your toddler falls into this category, that doesn’t mean that nothing will scare them, it just means you might be surprised by the things that do – the water going down the drain in the bathtub might terrify them, even if catching a few minutes of a horror movie you’re watching just makes them giggle.
Another option lies in the fact that toddlers love to push boundaries. The things adults are afraid of or uncomfortable with can turn into boundaries parents and caregivers didn’t even know they had. If a toddler notices a parent or caregiver getting uncomfortable or reacting strangely when they talk about somewhat taboo subjects, like death, they may start to get interested in exploring that reaction again in the future.
For another thing, a passion for all things “spooky,” like ghosts, graveyards, and other images that might show up in Halloween decorations doesn’t necessarily translate to a toddler wanting to be actually scared. There are many reasons tots might get attached to these types of images, from having a really great time on Halloween to getting the sense that spookier books, shows, and games are somehow more grown-up. And finally, toddlers, like all people, can get a taste for being a little scared as a way of processing emotions. There’s a reason ghost stories never quite go out of style, after all.
How much scary stuff should Baby have access to?
Even for children who enjoy being scared, there’s generally a limit, and after that limit, it stops being so much fun. The group Common Sense Media, which reviews movies, books, and other types of media to evaluate what age it’s geared towards, notes that children younger than 7 can have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, so it’s especially important to take care about the media they’re exposed to. “Monsters aren’t real,” can be comforting to an older child, but for very young children, especially toddlers, who are still figuring out the difference between make-believe and reality, it may not make them feel much safer.
This doesn’t mean cutting a scary-loving toddler off from their favorite types of stories, though. It’s entirely possible to track down spookier stories that aren’t all that scary – Halloween-themed books and shows, especially, can be on the sweeter, more harmless side, but still have vampires, ghouls, and ghosties playing starring roles. As they get older, your little goosebump-chaser may become more ready for scarier stories, or they may eventually lose interest.
In the meantime, if a young child is enjoying a slightly scarier piece of media, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if it starts to give them bad dreams or other sleep problems, or if they start to have irrational fears, or obsessions with scary topics, it may be time to dial back the scarier books, movies, or other pieces of media in their life until they are a little bit older.
For very young children, very spooky things generally aren’t the best idea to begin with, but as toddlers turn into slightly older children, it can be helpful to introduce scarier themes gradually. A 5-year-old is generally better at differentiating fantasy from reality than a 2- or 3-year-old, and introducing spooky movies or shows that are animated, instead of live-action, may be able to help them remember the difference between real and story.
In the same vein, for spook-starved children who are a little older, going for very early, black and white scary movies can be a good way to introduce scary stories (and maybe an understanding of basic special effects!) to a young child while still leaving a visual way to differentiate between these scary movies and less scary, more modern things they might watch. It’s also important to keep in mind that movies and shows that are spoofs on scary things, and that are designed to be funny to adults, can be as scary as the movies or shows they’re meant to make fun of to toddlers, since toddlers generally don’t have the frame of reference to the shows and movies the spoof is calling back to.
Finally, it’s one of those rules of thumb that’s a classic because it’s true – the scary stories, books, or movies that do make it into your home will probably be the most fun, and the least likely to cause nightmares you’ll have to deal with later, if they happen earlier on in the day, instead of right before bed. Even children who aren’t too scared of a story in the moment can get frightened by what their unconscious minds might choose to do with the images from a story, movie, or TV show.
When toddlers do get scared
One of the interesting things about comforting a toddler who’s scared of something that isn’t real, or that doesn’t make sense, is that the solution doesn’t always have to make sense, either. For toddlers who really believe there’s something spooky under the bed, or that monsters come out at night, a logical explanation may not do much for them, while spraying monster-spray through the room to keep the monsters away might.
In the moment when a toddler sees something scary, it can be helpful to take a time-out to talk through what’s going on, and put a new spin on it. This might mean pointing out how the “good guy” got away, so that the triumph over the villain in question doesn’t get lost in a toddler’s fear, or it might mean pulling back to talk about how it’s just a story, or even some of the methods that might be used in the special effects.
- “How much ‘scary stuff’ can my young kid handle?” common sense media. common sense media. Retrieved June 27 2017. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/violence-in-the-media/how-much-scary-stuff-can-my-young-kid-handle.