Scaring Children – Done Correctly – Can Be a Route To Important Learning


By Marc Malmdorf Andersen 

All over the world, parents and caregivers routinely provide scary experiences for young children. Just think of Halloween, games like “hide and seek,” chasing children around the home, playing in the dark, and all the rough-and-tumble play that adults engage in with children. The grownups are drawn to this role and children are curious about scary things. They often ask for more.

Yet fear is often conceived of as an emotion to be avoided and a feeling that exists to keep humans and other animals away from experiences that could be dangerous. Often, people think children should experience this emotion as rarely as possible. How then do we explain the paradox of horror? How do we explain why we are drawn to fear and why we enjoy certain forms of such experiences, even when we are children?

In our Recreational Fear Lab in Denmark, we have conducted research that aims to answer these questions. In our work, we also explored whether carefully regulated scaring of young children may be happening in preschool and child care settings, sometimes even before children have learned to walk.

‘There seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to recreational fear … where delight is related to a manageable amount of fearful surprise that a person can deal with and ultimately learn from.’

In our study, we found that Danish nurseries commonly engage in scary activities. A singing game about a sleeping bear ends with all the children roaring “Rrrrrrr” at each other and collapsing into laughter. In another game, a child sits on an adult’s lap as if riding on a horse and then, at the end of the game, the adult pulls his or her legs apart and the child falls through the middle. Again, there are squeals of surprise and laughter.

Getting scariness right for toddlers

In these scary games, the adults are being careful. They do not frighten the children mindlessly. They try to get the level just right – not too much, not too little. And they choose the time for such play carefully – early in the day, when the children are well fed and rested and able to handle it. Even though this process is not part of their formal training, educators are committed to it and when asked, they are eager to discuss it.

The game and the surprise are not always the same. Sometimes, the children hear the story of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” in which an ogre controls a bridge across which three goats must pass; the story is animated with dolls. Each time a goat tries to cross, the ogre declares in a deep, scary voice, “I’m going to eat you,” and the goat responds, “No, no, you should wait to eat my brother. He’s bigger!” The story ends with the third and largest brother crossing the bridge and beating up the troll.

If the teachers see that children are enjoying this tale, they sometimes take the story to the next level. They might add a bit of theatre, dressing up and acting out the scene on the bridge to make it a bit scarier, a little more real. But they do this only if they feel the children are ready for an added dose of scariness.

Learning to handle scares is key to brain development

Most of these games share a common feature – a predictable pattern of suspense. They are trying to teach children that, in a moment, they are going to be given a scare. The children are learning to anticipate – and manage – a soft jump in their fear, similar to what they may encounter at points in their lives.

Many Danish nursery and preschool teachers see it almost as an obligation to expose children to these types of experiences because children need to learn to deal with the unexpected and the scary. It is a way to counteract “helicopter parenting” or what Danes call “curling culture,” in which parents sometimes anticipate and sweep away difficulties in their children’s lives, leaving them possibly less able to deal with future problems by themselves.

We believe that children have fun and feel good during these scary experiences because, in the process, they are making something unpredictable more predictable. This exercise fits some of the main cognitive principles about the brain, which works like an advanced prediction machine, constantly trying to predict or guess what the future will bring.

How to spot the right level of scariness

In general, play appears to be a deliberate quest for measured doses of unpredictability. When we play, we explore the borderlands of our sphere of knowledge. Totally unpredictable play is not much fun. It can feel chaotic. And predictable play is not fun either – it can be boring. The trick is finding the sweet spot, the perfect path through our personal borderlands.

‘A moderate scare can be good because it gives us an opportunity to learn how our bodies respond in certain ways to certain experiences.’

This theory of play applies to scary experiences, too, when they happen at the right level for children and are playful. Children often give signals when they are at their sweet spot – a shriek of laughter and surprise, signs that they are having fun, not being traumatized. Parents should be guided by signals that their child is handling the experience well, learning, and figuring out how to predict what will happen next.

Such sweet-spot moments have also been identified in reports of scary experiences by older children and adults. They have even been observed physiologically. We conducted a study of adults and children over age 12 who visited a haunted attraction. They completed questionnaires about how they experienced various moments and we mapped those answers against variations in their heart rates, which were monitored during the frightening experience.

The physiology of scary play

We found that enjoyment in the haunted attraction was related to just-right fluctuations in participants’ heart rate. In other words, “fun” coincided with moderate whoops and deviations in the heart’s fluctuations. In contrast, participants who reported that they did not enjoy the scary experiences either had larger variations in their heart rates, suggesting an overwhelming experience, or showed no change in heart rate, suggesting that they may have disassociated from or become bored by the experience.

We should not be surprised that joy springs from such an apparently negative emotion as fear. Nearly 300 years ago, David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, observed in his essay “Of Tragedy” that there is “an unaccountable pleasure, which the spectators of a well written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror . . . and other passions, which are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more are they delighted with the spectacle.”

Paul Bloom, the esteemed Yale psychologist who is now a professor at Toronto University, underscores Hume’s observations and was among the first to suggest that many enjoyable experiences are also typically characterized by hitting a sweet spot. For example, a hug should be neither too hard nor too soft, and coffee should be neither too hot nor too cold. Similarly, there seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to recreational fear – those occasions when individuals derive pleasure out of fear – where delight is related to a manageable amount of fearful surprise that a person can deal with and ultimately learn from.

Overall, this is reasonable. It makes sense that a successful organism, such as a human being, should have a reward mechanism associated with learning so it can adapt to more circumstances and enhance its capacities to survive and thrive.

Bodily experience of playful fear

The haunted attraction experiment may highlight how we sometimes learn not only about phenomena outside of ourselves, but also about our own physiological responses. A moderate scare can be good because it gives us an opportunity to learn how our bodies respond in certain ways to certain experiences. We may then be more prepared to manage those responses in a better way if they happen again. We suspect that this is one reason children – and adults – repeat scary experiences, so they can go through the physiological impact again and learn how to recover more effectively.

‘The children are learning to anticipate – and manage – a soft jump in their fear, similar to what they may encounter at points in their lives.’

Some researchers argue that anxiety is epidemic among young people today not only because we are better at diagnosing it. They suggest that the increase might also be linked to the decline in the incidence of risky play, in part because of urbanization, less outside space for play, a focus on preventing children from getting hurt, and increased technology for play in the home. Taken together, these factors are reducing forms of risky play that are often the very circumstances in which children seek out appropriately scary experiences for themselves. So people today may be less experienced at being scared in a safe way, which may, in turn, contribute to the overall increase in general anxiety.

In summary, it is important not to misunderstand the fun derived from recreational fear. This is not a suggestion that parents hide in the closet and jump out to scare their kids. Rather, it is a reminder to look for those times when children squeal and laugh and shriek with delight. There is a good chance that these are signs that they are learning.

Previously Published on childandfamilyblog

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