Clowns seem more menacing than whimsical these days. In the U.S. and Europe, there are reports of people in clown makeup brandishing knives to frighten passersby, including children.
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From middle schools to colleges, clowns also have threatened violence at schools via social media — with some threats revealed as hoaxes created by students themselves.
Depending on what your child has heard or experienced, he or she may struggle with anxiety or feel a lack of safety, says psychologist Kristen Eastman, PsyD. “Children tend to believe that what they see or hear can actually happen to them — whether it’s true or not,” she says.
Understand how kids think
When it comes to events, particularly scary ones, children often can’t weigh the likelihood of events happening to them. Also, younger children may not know the difference between occurrences on the other side of the planet versus something happening in a nearby city.
Dr. Eastman says interpreting events becomes even more difficult when it’s something that seems beyond our control — whether it’s the appearance of evil clowns or a tornado.
Younger kids naturally have more active imaginations (Think: monsters under the bed). “It’s important to reinforce that these ‘clowns’ are merely real people in a costume, who are probably doing pranks,” Dr. Eastman says.
Older kids are more affected by the school rumor mill, which can cause information to become distorted or exaggerated — and social media channels like Instagram only feed the flame.
“Social media makes the threat feel very real given how immediate and ever-present the information is,” she says.
7 tips to help your child deal with fear
Dr. Eastman suggests the following when you talk to your child about their fears:
- Focus on what’s in our control. If your child is struggling with anxiety, refocus the discussion to things within our control. For example, remind your child that the school is locked during the day and that there are safety measures in place to protect them. Reinforce that parents and teachers work to keep kids safe at all times.
- Be age appropriate. “Younger kids don’t need all the facts — it will overwhelm them and actually cause more anxiety,” Dr. Eastman says. It’s important to protect kids from too much information than they can handle for their stage of development. “Censor news, media and online influence, especially with younger kids who don’t have the maturity to absorb the information.”
- Separate hearsay from reality. Help your children see the difference between what they know is true versus what might be true.
- Go beyond validating emotions. “Always start with validating your child’s emotions, but then gently challenge their irrational thinking,” she says. Ask questions such as the following: Do we know for sure this will happen? Do we have any proof? This will help find a more balanced way of thinking about their fear.
- Formulate a plan. Give kids tools to deal with anxiety, such as taking deep breaths, relaxing their muscles, reminding themselves of the safety precautions in place and helping them think more realistically about their fear.
- Be appropriately cautious. Reinforce the importance of tried-and-true safety precautions, such as not talking to strangers, sticking with a buddy and avoiding walking alone. At the same time, don’t feed undue anxiety. “You want to reassure your kids that they should keep to their normal routine, and do what they normally do.They just need to be aware and report anything suspicious,” she says.
- Manage your own emotions. As a parent, don’t show your own fear or anxiety — and be careful not to talk in a panicked way within kids’ earshot. “Whether it’s said explicitly or not, kids will detect your own anxiety and it will reinforce theirs,” Dr. Eastman says.
When it comes to clown scares or other social media trends, there’s an opportunity for a broader lesson for older kids.
You can explain how words and actions carry consequences. Dr. Eastman says,”It’s a good time to explain that whether you are hiding behind a clown mask or an anonymous screen name on Instagram, social media is powerful.”
Empower your kids by helping them consider the wide reaching impact social media has before they put anything out there. You also can help them understand how social media can potentially produce a feeling of threat or fear in others. This helps kids be mindful of how they use it and how they interpret what they read and see.