Wendy McDonnell’s three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, is not a fan of clowns. Or Santa Claus. Or amusement park characters. “She just cries and tries to hide behind me when she sees them,” says McDonnell. “I don’t think we’ll be getting her photo taken with Santa next Christmas, just like we didn’t get one done last year.”
Aren’t little kids supposed to like mascots and costumed characters? “Parents are often very surprised when their children are afraid of Santa Claus, clowns and other characters,” says Barbara Dyszuk, manager of Family and Community Solutions at K-W Counselling Services in Kitchener, Ont. “I think parents are more accepting that children will have fears of things like monsters and the dark. But while fear of people in costumes may not be the most common childhood fear, it’s definitely real!”
Why does this happen, when clowns and characters are meant to be funny — and friendly? “At this age, children have vivid imaginations and have trouble telling what’s real and what’s not,” explains Dyszuk. “Young children are frightened by the new and different — and someone wearing clown makeup or a mask is definitely different.”
What’s the big deal? Can’t you just stay away from places where clowns and characters hang out until your child outgrows this reaction, or at least plan to back away quickly if Goofy rushes up to you while you’re watching a parade? That’s not so easy if you also have an older child eager to interact with the characters or have a picture taken with Santa. So what can you do if character encounters are likely in your future?
• Before you go, show your child pictures of the characters she might meet. Talk about what might happen. (And let her know that the Mickey Mouse she might see will be bigger than the one on TV.)
• Bring comfort objects (blankie, sippy cup, etc.) that might help your child feel less stressed.
At the event
• Respect that this fear is real for your child, and stay calm yourself. Telling your child that she’s being silly or trying to force her to interact with the clown isn’t likely to be helpful.
• Watch for non-verbal cues. Some scared preschoolers just freeze and don’t move away or say anything, but their tension is obvious.
• Don’t push her to go closer or try to reason with her (no matter how long you waited in line).
• Help your child feel physically secure by picking her up, hugging her, holding her hand or just staying close.
• If the experience has been stressful, provide lots of opportunities for fantasy play so that your child can work through her fears. She may want to act out being the clown or scary character, or draw pictures about what happened.
• Give her words for her feelings: “You were scared when Mickey Mouse came to talk to you” or “You seemed worried about the walking teddy bears in the parade.”
“All kids have fears at some point in their lives, and they usually grow out of them,” Dyszuk reminds parents. “It helps if parents can stay calm and confident themselves, while still respecting the child’s feelings.”