Ask Dr. Mike: The Creepy Clowns of 2016

Ask Dr. Mike: The Creepy Clowns of 2016

“Did you hear about the three kids that were killed last week by clowns?” and “Clowns are capturing children and dragging them into the woods” and “The police are looking for two clowns that were in the woods by my school’s playground” are just a few of the many comments my young clients have reported to me these past few weeks.  And with Halloween just around the corner, it seems that the anxieties and concerns for many children (and parents) about creepy clowns is only increasing.

As a child psychologist in private practice, I’ve witnessed the negative impact of creepy clowns on my clients for several months now, and I’ve thought long and hard about the problem.  So, what’s the creepy clown phenomenon really all about and how do we manage the situation best for our children?

Initially reported in South Carolina this summer as an isolated incident, there are now hundreds of creepy clown sightings throughout the U.S. with related alleged stalking and menacing attacks.  And the sightings are no longer just being reported in the U.S., with recent creepy clown sightings in Latin America, Europe and New Zealand too.

In my opinion, the best way to understand the creepy clown phenomenon of 2016 is to appreciate that multiple factors are probably contributing to the moment that  has culminated in the perfect storm.

I tell parents that the notion of scary things is not in and of itself a bad thing for our children.  In fact, developmentally it’s normal for our children to be scared of certain things (e.g., the dark or monsters or ghosts), and it’s important for them to address their anxieties and fears when they arise in order to gain personal mastery and confidence.

Factor #1:  We’ve been down this road before, and the creepy clowns of 2016 shouldn’t be a great surprise and should be understood in the context of folklores, myths and urban legends; they are yet one more of a long list of socio-cultural or communal evil archetypes and stories that have been told and retold that have been passed on through the generations — The Boogey Man, Bloody Mary, the Headless Horseman – are other relevant examples.

Factor #2:  It’s already been argued that we might think of the creepy clown phenomenon of 2016 more philosophically where the clowns symbolically represent something larger for us as a society; the clowns being manifestations of our current inner turmoil or anxiety.  When you consider this tumultuous and polarizing presidential election year that has been riddled with incredible uncertainty and fear, alongside anxiety and heightened emotional disagreements over the economy, terrorism, racial tension, police brutality, same sex bathrooms, etc., perhaps the timing is perfect for the personification of anxiety vis-à-vis creepy clowns.

Incidentally, the zombie phenomenon that occurred in recent years could also be understood in the same way.  Zombies, for example, have been argued to symbolize excesses of consumer capitalism and dissatisfaction with conformity and a loss of individuality.  Is it a coincidence then that zombies were first introduced in film after The Great Depression, and they gained in popularity in the media after the recent recession and during a time that the U.S. economy struggled again?  And we can’t forget Slender Man, the supernatural on-line meme that stalked, abducted and traumatized children that curiously also came on the scene shortly after the 2008 recession.

Factor #3:  With the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet, the extensive media coverage of creepy clowns has possibly served to increase our anxiety on the topic and maybe even encouraged more creepy clown behavior.  The contagion effect, the idea that one event can spread to other similar events, is a very real possibility here.  The suicide rate in the U.S., for example, reportedly jumped by 12% in the U.S. in response to Marilyn Monroe’s probable suicide in 1962.

Beyond theses possible factors – and there certainly may be others — what can parents do to ease their children’s anxiety around the Creepy Clowns of 2016? 

I tell parents that the notion of scary things is not in and of itself a bad thing for our children.  In fact, developmentally it’s normal for our children to be scared of certain things (e.g., the dark or monsters or ghosts), and it’s important for them to address their anxieties and fears when they arise in order to gain personal mastery and confidence.

I also remind parents to be mindful of what our children are capable of handling before discussing things. Thus, if your child has expressed upset over clowns, his or her age, maturity level and threshold for worry/anxiety are all things to consider before discussing the topic. Just as you would not discuss natural disasters or school shootings in the same way with 4-, 8- or 12-year-old children due to developmental differences, you would not do the same for the topic of scary clowns with your children of varying ages.

I recommend that parents normalize a child’s fear of creepy clowns via gradual exposure.  Reviewing old Bozo the Clown reruns on YouTube, going to the circus, and using humor to diminish a child’s anxieties can be helpful strategies.

I strongly urge parents to turn off the clown news!  News agencies have been on fire with creepy clown stories since the initial sightings this past summer. And while clown sightings is a newsworthy story, such widespread exposure can cause increased anxiety for our children.

I also tell parents that’s it’s always important to give their children the tools they need to get control over troubling or upsetting moments.  So, when it comes to creepy clowns, developing an action plan with your child or children this Halloween is probably a good idea – especially since some teens may see the creepy clown phenomenon as an opportunity to scare younger children this year.  Thus, parents can prepare their younger children in advance about the sorts of costumes they might see when trick-or-treating, emphasizing that a clown costume, like any other costume, isn’t real or dangerous.

This Halloween, parents of children who are afraid of clowns should also be more available and reassuring to their younger children and they should follow their children’s lead.  It’s never a good idea to force an overly anxious or upset child to tolerate more than they can, and sometimes regrouping or returning home is the best idea.

And remember, while there’s nothing funny about creepy clowns when it comes to our children’s well being, like the Boogey Man, the creepy clowns of 2016 will eventually go away.

mike-oberschneid-web-1Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.


Tribune Staff