My 8-year-old has just been turned on to reading after discovering a series of scary books. The problem is that he is now afraid to sleep alone, turn the light off, go down into the basement, etc. Should I forbid these books or is there another way to deal with this?
Children get their ideas about the world outside the home from what they read or what they see on TV. We live in a society which is in many ways safer than it has ever been, yet the media have provided us with a very distorted view of the world, so that we think it’s much more dangerous than it is. See my article, “Dangerous Thoughts,” of January 1997 for more detail about this.
Children can be traumatized by both real and fictional frightening events and creatures. What’s important is that you don’t leave your child alone in the experience of the world which the scary books depict. It’s too late to just forbid the books; he’s already been frightened by them. So you need to help him become aware that their view of the world is not how it really is.
Read one of the books with him, or have him read it to you, and stop frequently to discuss what is and isn’t realistic in the book. You could actually go to the library together and research some of the things mentioned in the book, to find out together what does and doesn’t happen in the world, and if it does happen, how often it actually happens. Kids actually read these books, and watch these kind of TV shows, to gain a sense of mastery over the dangers represented. Your son can gain this mastery most effectively by learning what is and isn’t real, by being armed with facts and statistics. Then he can laugh scornfully at the things in the books. He may decide not to read them, or he may read them without being traumatized, once he knows they’re not real.
Meanwhile, you need to be gentle with your son’s fears. Give him a night light, or let him go to sleep with the light on. Leave the door open so he can hear you in the living room. Accompany him to the basement, and point out how impossible it is for anyone or anything to get in. Let him talk about what he’s scared of, and take extra precautions if it’ll make him feel safer, as long as the precautions don’t become ridiculous. Reassure him that you are always near and will hear him if he calls. And try hard not to let him become exposed to other sources of insecurity, such as TV news or frightening movies. Ask your children’s librarian for books which deal with children’s fears (there are some good ones), and also for good children’s books like the Narnia Chronicles which provide excitement without being too scary.