Don’t Panic: How Fiction Saves Anxious Kids

All parents (and teachers) know that scary movies can give a child weeks of nightmares. We all remember that one scene that kept us up at night when we were kids. Sometimes the things that scare us aren’t even from horror films: I have a friend who spent second grade terrified of ET.

Scary movies and scary scenes in other movies (like these nightmarish sequences in classic children’s movies) can torment children with anxiety disorders. But, sometimes, a slightly scary piece of fiction can actually provide relief for an anxious kid, especially in older children.

Like many people, I consider junior high to have been the worst time in my life. My anxiety was unmanaged and unpredictable, exacerbated by hormones and life stress. At the time, my biggest fear was, for whatever reason, an alien invasion resulting in the end of the world. So when a good friend suggested I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which basically opens with the Earth being destroyed by aliens, I was reluctant to take her advice. She insisted “H2G2,” as it’s called by fans, was “basically the best book ever,” so I took a risk and started reading.

She was right. The book is smart and witty and adventurous and, most importantly, hilarious. By the time the Earth got destroyed (and, like I said, it happens early), I was laughing too hard to feel scared. I spent the whole summer reading all five books in the “increasingly misnamed” Hitchhiker’s trilogy, and my xenophobia (in the sense of the least common usage) was nearly cured. It’s fitting, therefore, that the fictional version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is labeled with the words DON’T PANIC.

Humor is healing, and humor typically relies on surprise and the build and release of tension, so fear can easily be a part of humor. After 9/11, the country used humor to heal. Some of that humor was hate-filled. People told awful jokes about Muslims and Arabs. Internet cartoons showed US soldiers leveling Afghan cities. This was revenge humor, and it was anything but healing. Because 9/11 terrified me so deeply, I avoided any reference to the attacks. Then, one day, I saw my brother watching an episode of South Park in which the protagonists visit Afghanistan. The episode balanced empathy with absurdity, presenting Afghan children as virtually identical to their US counterparts except, of course, that the Afghan children had nothing fun to do because their neighborhood kept getting blown up. Bin Laden was turned into a Loony Toons villain, and the jokes at his expense were crude and angry. But the episode was playful! It did help me heal. Other episodes of South Park, like one about SARS, offered similar relief. (If you aren’t familiar with South Park, it’s extremely crude and deliberately controversial, so I’m absolutely not recommending you show it to your young kids. And there are episodes that are simply terrifying, even to adults.)

I’m sharing these anecdotes to illustrate how fiction can sometimes “save” anxious kids. Sometimes laughing about a fear makes it melt away. Humor isn’t even a necessary component; a comforting story that includes your fear and has a happy ending can be just as therapeutic as a great joke. If your student or child is suffering from specific fears, look for books, shows, or movies that address the fears through humor and have a happy ending. Be sure that the media you select is age appropriate, and avoid anything that’s scarier than it is funny; “Mars Attacks” traumatized me so bad I still regret watching it, and it’s been more than ten years.

I’ve included a brief list of works of fiction that I believe may help children deal with specific fears. IMPORTANT: I find these books comforting, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 25th Anniversary Edition
Fears: aliens, end of the world, space; For teens (and adults)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)
Fears: nuclear bombs, war, end of the world; Age ten and up

also by Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time [Paperback]
Fears: illness of a parent; Ages ten and up

Fears: loss of parents, kidnapping, parents changing, losing eyes; Ages 8 and up
Warning: Coraline is an excellent book with a happy ending, but it’s really creepy!

Holes (A Yearling Book)
Fears: false imprisonment, venomous animals, authority figures, dehydration; Ages 9 and up

If you’ve had a similar experience with a piece of fiction, please post it in the comments.


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