Children get frightened easily. They might be scared of thunder, big dogs, or the basement. Things that go bump in the night often make the list of fears. Creaking floors. Shadows cast by trees. The odd aches of a home. And, yes, the idea of spirits. Ghosts for kids are real, tangible things and thus so is a kids fear of ghosts. Children seeing ghosts see them because, well, that’s what they think they see.
There’s a good reason for a child’s fear. It’s all in their minds. Which is not to say you can explain their fear away. You can’t. Developmentally a young child gets frightened because everything they are seeing and hearing is telling them that they are in real and present danger. The trick for parents, then, is in working with their child’s mind rather than fighting it.
According to Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, kids have the same fear triggers as adults, but they’re turned up to 11.
“Their imaginations can be really powerful and get the best of them,” she says. “They can’t make rational arguments yet, so that lack of ability to make sense of things can contribute to monster stories becoming really scary — because they can’t figure out what’s real.”
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do besides handing them a proton pack and wishing them good luck.
Don’t Invalidate Their Fears
The first thing you absolutely should not do when your kid starts freaking out about ghosts is tell them they’re not real. Invalidating their fears will get you nowhere. “The worst thing to tell a kid is ‘Don’t be scared,’ ” says Kerr. “You’re basically telling a kid that their experience is wrong, and that can lead to all kinds of pathology down the road.” Let them believe in ghosts — like Santa or the Easter Bunny — until they reach the age when they call bullshit. “Or, they can decide they do believe in ghosts,” she says. If it’s the latter, they can always have a lucrative career on basic cable.
Stay on Topic
Much like talking about where babies come from, talking about where ghosts come from can open up a whole containment unit of issues. “If your kid all of a sudden starts asking about ghosts and what happens when we die, stay consistent in whatever the child’s worldview is,” says Kerr. “If the family has never engaged in those religious ideas before, go more into imaginative play realm.” That means you have two options: Tell them to go ask their Sunday school teacher, or just tell them that ghosts spend their lives in a weird realm where they can see but never taste ice cream, all because they didn’t listen to their parents.
You Can’t Cheat (The Conversation About) Death
The topic will come up again and again — especially when there’s a death in the family — because this topic is as mysterious and terrifying for kids as it is for your middle-aged brain. The first step is to tailor the message to their age. Often parents sidestep the question by saying the deceased “went away” or “went to sleep for awhile.” That can actually increase a kids’ anxiety because they’ll ask follow-up questions like “When are they coming back?” or “What happens if I just never go to sleep?”
Younger kids may not understand the idea of permanence, so if you’re talking to a 3-year-old, try making the example concrete without talking about the great beyond. Like flowers — when they die they don’t need water or sunshine anymore, they just go back to the dirt. Same with grandma.
With older kids, they want to know what’s going to happen to you. “Most times when kids are asking about death, they want to understand that they’re going to be protected and safe, and that even if their parents die it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be alone,” says Kerr. Just don’t promise things like you’ll be a cooler ghost dad.
Help Kids Face Their Fears
There are ways to raise kids to be comfortable with fear, especially in the dark: Get out the crayons. “Don’t try to teach them that fear is avoidable. Acknowledge the fear and ask them questions about what they’re feeling and experiencing. That way they’ll learn that the way to move through something scary is to think and talk about it,” says Kerr. “Having kids draw their monsters or ghosts has shown to be really helpful. You can even have them make a story around it, and guide that story to one that has a positive or playful ending.” Or you can just buy a book that has a happy ending.
How to Introduce Kids to Horror Movies
Monsters Inc: Good for kids. Saw 4: Good for sadists. Kerr says that depending on the child, you should typically wait until they’re seven or older before showing them anything too graphic. “That image might really stick with them, and they still might not grasp that it’s fake,” she says. You may know that those creatures are just the wizardry of Rick Baker, but your kid can’t help but internalize it. Now they have nightmares. And now you’re awake all night. Damn you, Rick Baker!
Then again, Kerr has seen little kids walk into haunted houses and lose their shit — in a good way. “They love it, because they have a tremendous awareness of everything around them being fake.”