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How Scary Is Too Scary for Children?

What may be an enjoyable thrill for one 5-year-old may be sheer terror to another. As Halloween season approaches, Dr. Pamela Vincent, assistant professor of psychology at Ashford University, says every child is different. Understanding and talking about the child’s fears is essential in determining how scary is too scary for the individual.

According to "How Adults Have Hijacked Halloween from Kids," a Forbes® article, "Halloween used to be a kid holiday -- the one day each year when children were granted permission to stay up late, dress as their favorite superhero or princess and eat unlimited amounts of free treats." As Halloween has evolved toward more adult audiences, the ghouls have become more gruesome, costumes like the Gory Pealing Flesh Zombie have become the norm, and movies are more horrifically realistic and macabre.

"Fear, or the belief that we are in danger, produces a natural response in our bodies. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense, and our breathing becomes quicker. We have a heightened sense of awareness from our senses of everything around us. This is an evolutionary trait intended to protect us from harm," Dr. Vincent said.

"When our brain knows that the stimulus of our fear isn’t truly a threat to our survival, these biological responses can actually produce enjoyable thrills, which are the result of an increase in the hormone dopamine. This is often referred to as an 'adrenaline rush'.

"People gain adrenaline rushes from activities like going to haunted houses or even doing death-defying stunts like skydiving or base jumping. However, some brains are more naturally reactive to the rush of dopamine than others, which explains why some enjoy these thrills more than others. Going through a scary experience can also increase our feelings of confidence and make us feel brave enough to do it again in the future," she adds.

Children experience fear a bit differently than adults. For example, a child might watch a scary movie about a witch and develop serious anxieties about witches. While adults have developed a sense of what is truly a threat and what is unlikely to occur in real life, younger children have not often had enough experience to make this distinction. Therefore, what is a seemingly innocuous haunted house to an 8- to 10-year-old might be a traumatic experience for 2- to 4-year-old.

How do you know how scary is too scary for your child? While each child is a bit different, talking with your child about his or her fears is the best way to judge the potential reactions.

Psychology also offers some insights. As infants and toddlers, their understanding of the world comes in the form of sensory information. However, preschoolers and young children through about age 7 understand the world in a pre-logical way and use play and pretend situations to learn about their world. It is in this stage that children are likely to begin having more intense imaginations which lead them to become scared more often -- of both real and imaginary threats.

After age 7, most children enter the concrete operational stage of development and begin to understand his or her surroundings in a more logical fashion, better enabling them to distinguish real and imaginary fears. For parents who are undecided if a movie or event is just too scary for their child, Dr. Vincent recommends erring on the side of caution. Halloween will be back again next year.


About Ashford University
Where heritage meets innovation – that’s Ashford University. At Ashford, students discover relevant degree programs, innovative technology, and cherished tradition. Ashford offers associates, bachelor’s, and master’s online degree programs, while the Clinton, Iowa campus offers bachelor’s programs. Whether on campus or online, Ashford students enjoy the same supportive community. For more information, please visit,,, or call Shari Winet, Vice President of Public Relations, at 858.513.9240 x2513.

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