Dear Dr. Debbie,
We were at a party this past weekend at which a costumed character appeared. She was very friendly to adults and children alike, but my 3-year-old son held on to me as if for dear life. I’ve noticed he acts this way around any adult in costume and therefore we generally avoid public places where they are known to exist.
What’s odd is that his older sister doesn’t do this, not even when she was his age. Is he destined to be the father who can’t take his own kids to the circus because of the clowns?
Dad of a Wary One
Don’t miss last week’s column When parents disagree on food for kids — Good Parenting
Children of any age can have a degree of uneasiness around people they don’t know. This ranges from mild bashfulness to utter panic. A fear of strange faces is one of the common human fears we are born with. (The full list can be found here.) A distorted human face — as with make up or a mask — has the power to provoke a reaction ranging from amusement to terror.
It’s possible that your son registered panic at seeing a bizarre face sometime in his first two years of life. If you were present, you saw his wary reaction and held him close to reassure him. The event gets recorded through the part of the brain that recognizes and reacts to danger. After a few such experiences, your son learned that any feelings of being in danger are relieved by holding on to you. Such a “learned response” has been keeping frightened children running to their parents since time began. It keeps them feeling, and often being, safe.
The best approach for helping your son deal with future frights is to do just as you are doing. Hold him securely so you can physically and verbally reassure him, and try to minimize exposure. Eventually, what we do for our children they learn to do for themselves. Your words will echo in his head long after he’s a little boy in your arms. “You’ll be okay” will resonate comfortingly as he faces whatever monsters cross his future paths. Or he may just say to himself “I’d rather not go to the circus” in mastery of preventing an unnecessary stress on himself. There are plenty of other fun things for a family to do.
But if you would like to arm him against panic with clowns and such, you could try some play therapy. This will reduce the amount of adrenaline rushing through him when he encounters bizarre faces in the near and distant future. Have your son play with costumes, masks and makeup. Start with hats. He surely has well-known hats that he can put on your head and his head. Look in the mirror together. Take pictures. Extend the range of hats to more and more uncommon ones as he is comfortable. Then add crazy glasses, stickers, temporary tattoos or face paint. Start with the familiar and ease toward the less familiar.
There are families who never climb the Washington Monument nor hike along scenic cliffs because someone has a fear of heights. Other families may forgo the Luray Caverns and scuba diving for fear of depths. Some never risk going to outdoor concerts in July nor busy shopping centers in December because they worry about being swallowed up by the crowds. There are those families who thrill to watch scary movies together and others who wouldn’t dream of straying from light and fluffy family fare. Your family may be perfectly fine evading the costumed mascots at ball games and the fairy tale characters of Disney World. There is a whole world of fun things a family can do together, even when they’re at home. Respecting and supporting the individual needs of its members is what a family does.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com