Back in the day, when I was just starting out on my own, one of my favorite music videos was Michael Jackson’s Thriller (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to check it out. Really.). I was not alone. Over 9 million people were transfixed by Michael morphing into a werewolf in the light of the full moon, then teasing the viewer – is he really a terrifying ghoul or is it all imaginary fun?
Halloween: The Yin and Yang
In my neighborhood, there was one block – the “it” place to be on Halloween. The homeowners worked for months to prepare their yards, their rooftops, their porches. Everyone just knew it was the scariest street in the USA. As the sun went down and we were enveloped in inky darkness, everyone – I mean everyone – trekked over to Harper Avenue. The street was crowded with princesses and superheroes and – on the other end of the spectrum – mummies and vampires. Black cats and witches crouched on lawns in the shadows of flickering pumpkins. At some houses (and you never know which ones until you get there) fiendish laughter startled the young ones or they got caught in sticky cobwebs as they started up the steps for a trick or treat. Some screeched with giddy excitement. Some screeched with fear.
That sums up Halloween for me. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to act out your most cherished fantasies. One of my daughters who has an insatiable sweet tooth once chose to dress up as a bag of M&Ms. On the other hand, it is a day when you come face to face (figuratively) with your demons.
Facing Your Demons
We are all scared of something. For grownups, it might be the specter of losing a job or a spouse, or even just the vulnerability of not being able to be there to protect our kids every moment of the day and night. For teenagers it might be anxiety about a test or getting into college or losing a boyfriend or coming out or staying away from gangs. For toddlers it might be fear of the dark or strangers or, in many cases, Halloween itself.
The question, then, is what can you do about it? As many child development specialists will tell you, there is a general guideline here: teach your children to face their fears, not to bury them. This means, for starters, take their fears seriously; don’t laugh it off if your four-year-old tells you there are tigers prowling outside their second floor bedroom window or if your teenager insists he can’t go out because he has an acne outbreak. Take it seriously. Then, help them to look their fears square in the face and teach them how to take action to overcome them. This can play out in lots of different ways.
If a child is scared of the dark you can provide a nightlight or you can talk about the magical things like fireflies that come out to dance in the dark. You can set a routine of nightly bedtime story: For some, a cheerful favorite overrides feelings of fear; For others, stories about other children working out their fear of the dark are more helpful. I used to tuck my girls in with music or a story on tape. One of their favorites was kind of a hybrid of scary and hilarity – a story about Bunnicula the vampire bunny who sucked juice out of vegetables.
As your children get older, they may fear the uncertainties of life out in the larger world. One thing that I have found to help is giving them a sense that they are not alone. My daughters were very young when September 11 happened. I think it was hard for them to feel the reality of the Towers coming down. But the aftermath was very real: Military planes flying very low over our Chicago house for several days, our family room rattling from the sound of the engines overhead. When a plane would come, the girls would drop to the floor with their hands over their ears. My youngest had nightmares of bombs falling out of the sky. Even now, more than a decade later, these nightmares revisit her sporadically.
One Christmas, I gave her a book, Iraqi Girl (Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq). Living in occupied Iraq with bombs falling all around her, the author says, “Do you ever feel that you are imprisoned in a cage and there is no one except you and a big lion in this cage and you can’t get out. You can’t get out and there is nowhere to run. No way to run. That is my feeling.” Toward the end of the book, the author is on her way to college. She says, “”I am on my way to the future and living what could possibly be a happy memory someday.” It gave my daughter perspective. And a window into someone dealing with the same fears on a much larger scale.
I notice, too, as my daughters have moved out into the world away from home, they often paper their rooms with quotes such as “she believed she could so she did” to serve as models of how to face their fears.
Be A Role Model
One last thought. Children are observant. They often take their cues from you. How you face your demons can impact how they face theirs. In the words of our great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as he prepared to do battle with devastating poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Do you have stories or suggestions about teaching children to face their demons?