Parenting is hardly all sunshine and rainbows. And neither is the world we all live in. Which is why, stressful as it may be, it’s important to talk to kids about difficult topics in age-appropriate ways—and probably earlier than you think.
To help wade through the discomfort of addressing everything from death to climate change to sex, we turned to Emily Barth Isler, the author of AfterMath, a middle grade novel about navigating grief; one that Amy Schumer has called “a gift to the culture.”
While the parents in AfterMath shy away from these conversations, Isler, a mom of two, takes a different approach, drawing influence from the famous Fred Rogers quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Here, she walks us through tackling some of the tougher conversations with a similar approach: Find ways to draw kids in, activate their empathy, and encourage them to get involved.
Emily Barth Isler: “Let’s be clear, I hate that this article is so necessary, but I do appreciate that it features really clear, age-specific ways to start conversations with kids about school shootings. As someone who wrote a book that deals with this topic, I often hear from people who think it’s inappropriate to talk about these things with kids. But let’s be clear:
What’s inappropriate for kids is gun violence—gun violence in schools, churches, synagogues, grocery stores—all places they deserve to feel safe. When I wrote AfterMath, I hoped that it would soon be shelved in the Historical Fiction section of the library; I’m devastated that it continues to land squarely in current events. And will, until lawmakers do what’s necessary to make the violence stop.”
Emily Barth Isler : “The first step towards getting comfortable talking to kids about hard things is to get comfortable with those things yourself. Historically, American culture has often favored the “let’s pretend that’s not a thing” mentality when it comes to death and other tough stuff. I’d like to present another angle.
What if we dive in? What if we get vulnerable and honest with ourselves, and find a way to make some peace with things like the inevitability of death? I love how artists confront mortality, and the genius TV writer/creator Mike Schur does such a great job of doing so in the most hilarious, moving, brilliant way with his show, The Good Place.”
Emily Barth Isler : “Kids have excellent bullsh*t detectors. They tend to know when we’re lying—or even just withholding truth—and it can damage their trust in us. I’m not saying that you have to include all the details you would give a 30 year old when talking to a 10 year old, but if honesty is the foundation, you’re in good shape.
I appreciate this article because it gives parents very clear step-by-step instructions to get through the tough parts, it helps to be able to lean on that structure.”
Emily Barth Isler : “The survivors of tragedies do not owe us their stories or wisdom. But sometimes, something horrible will bring our attention to a bright light in the world, someone who is knowledgeable, compassionate, and brilliant. Nelba Marquez-Greene, my favorite Twitter follow, is one of these lights. She is such a vulnerable, honest voice, and I—an adult!—have found so much comfort in her faith and resilience.
She’s a therapist, but also lost her daughter, Ana Grace, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, so I find that she’s able to give multiple perspectives on life, death, and grief. Her TEDx talk has advice directed at teachers and teachers-in-training, but I think it translates very well to parents, too.”
Emily Barth Isler lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and their two kids. A former child actress, she performed all over the world in theatre, film, and TV. In addition to books, Emily writes about sustainable, eco-friendly beauty and skincare, and has also written web sitcoms, parenting columns, and personal essays. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, and really, really loves television. Her debut novel, AfterMath, is out now; learn more at emilybarthisler.com.
A scary figure emerges in a doorway at Dystopia Haunted House. Courtesy of Dystopia Haunted House / Henriette Klausen
Fear gets a bad rap. It’s a so-called negative emotion, one that supposedly stands between us and our dreams. It is certainly true that pure fear doesn’t feel good, but that is the whole point of the emotion. Fear tells us to get the hell out of Dodge because Dodge is a bad place. Fear evolved over millions of years to protect us from danger. So, yes, fear is a feel-bad emotion, but also, and perhaps paradoxically, the engine in a whole range of pleasurable activities and behaviors—which inspire what we can call recreational fear.
Once you start looking for it, you’ll find recreational fear everywhere. From a very early age, humans love being jump-scared by caregivers in the form of peek-a-boo, and being hurtled into the air (and caught). They get older and take great pleasure in chase play and hide-and-seek. They are drawn to scary stories about monsters and witches and ghosts. They perform daredevil tricks on playgrounds and race their bikes toward what, from a parent’s perspective, is certain and violent death.
As they grow a little older they get together for horror movie nights, stand patiently in line for roller coasters, and play horror video games. Indeed, most of us never quite lose our peculiar attraction to recreational fear—even if we eschew slasher flicks or dark crime shows brimming with murder, death, and gore.
So even though Dodge may be a bad place, we still keep visiting it, at least from the safe distance of play and make-believe. How come? One hypothesis is that recreational fear is a form of play behavior, which is widespread in the animal kingdom and ubiquitous among humans. When an organism plays, it learns important skills and develops strategies for survival.
Playfighting kittens train their ability to hold their own in a hostile encounter, but with little risk and low cost, compared to the real thing. Same with humans. When we play, we learn important things about the physical and social world, and about our own inner world. When we engage in recreational fear activities specifically, from peek-a-boo to horror movie watching, we play with fear, challenge our limits, and learn about our own physiological and psychological responses to stress. In other words, recreational fear might actually be good for us.
To investigate whether that is indeed the case and why, my colleagues and I have established the Recreational Fear Lab, a research center at Aarhus University, Denmark. We do lab studies, survey studies, and real-world empirical studies to understand this widespread but scientifically understudied psychological phenomenon.
The surveillance footage allowed us to see how guests responded to frightening events, such as a chainsaw-wielding pig-man chasing them down a dark corridor. The heart rate monitors told us about their physiological responses to such events, and the questionnaires allowed us to understand how they felt about it all.
They told us they perceived their experiences as a kind of play, supporting our notion of recreational horror as a medium for playing with fear. But we also wanted to go deeper into the relationship between fear and enjoyment. You might think that relationship is linear—the more fear, the better. But when we plotted the actual relationship between fear and enjoyment, it looked like an upside-down U. In other words, when people go to a haunted attraction, they don’t want too little fear (which is boring), and they don’t want too much fear (which is unpleasant).
What they want is to hit what we call the “sweet spot of fear.” That doesn’t just go for high-intensity haunted attractions either. When you hurtle a kid into the air, you don’t want it to be too tame or too wild; when teenagers joyride their bikes, they need just the right amount of tummy-tickling arousal; when you pick a horror movie on Netflix, you try to go for the one that sits just at the right point on the scare-o-meter.
So, there is pleasure to be had from these vicarious visits to Dodge, but are there any other benefits? In several past and ongoing studies of the psychological and social effects of engagement with recreational fear, we’ve seen it improve people’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety. For instance, one study—led by my colleague Coltan Scrivner—found that people who watch many horror movies exhibited better psychological resilience during the first Covid-19 lockdown than people who stay away from scary movies.
You can think of recreational fear as a kind of mental jungle gym where you prepare for the real thing, or as a kind of fear inoculation. A small dose of fear galvanizes the organism for the big dose that life throws at it sooner or later. So even though fear itself may be unpleasant, recreational fear is not only fun—it may be good for us.
With research findings such as these in mind, we should maybe think twice about shielding kids and young people too zealously from playful forms of fear. They’ll end up in Dodge sooner or later, and they will be better equipped if they’ve at least pretended to be there before.
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