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Five Nights at Freddy’s: What it is

tunneldark-inside I decided to write this after someone on my Facebook posted about how scared her child is about this game. I’m hearing about it a lot these days — in the anxiety groups, in sessions and in my own home.

Five Nights at Freddy’s is a video game that has both computer and app versions (for Kindles, iPads, etc.). The plot is this: You work at a place like Chuck E. Cheese where animatronic animals come alive at night. You’re the security guard. Your job is to stay alive over all five nights. The animatronics are murderous and the game relies on a lot of jump scares to keep you tense. Here‘s the whole back story if you want to read it.

Besides the game, there are a number of YouTube videos of people playing it with commentary. (My daughter wants me to tell you that there are “not scaries” of it, too, for kids who want in on the game but can’t watch videos with the scary parts. But there are still a lot of jump scares in them. If I had to watch a Five Nights at Freddy’s commentary video, I’d watch this animated one because it’s not scary at all.)

I’m hearing from kids that this is at peak attention right now (in fact, as soon as I publish this they will probably move on to something else terrifying because it’s so peak it’s probably peaked) but I’m talking about it because if you’re not aware of it you should be and because the issue of viral fear on the internet is going to be an issue whether it’s Slenderman or Five Nights or whatever else the kids are talking about that we’re not hearing about yet.

And that’s really what’s important to know here. In our day it was Ouija boards and Bloody Mary in the mirror at sleepovers and in their day it’s what the internet has to offer. The big difference is that the internet has the capacity to make things more real. People can create whole worlds online to populate their creepy fantasies, which makes urban legends feel a lot less legendary and a lot more like fact. (My friend on Facebook says that what pushed her child over the edge is that people have created a digital footprint for the pizza place featured in the game to help cement the idea that the whole thing is real. Here’s a kid who made a video about that.)

What I’m saying is that Five Nights at Freddy’s may be what’s happening now but the challenge is not Five Nights at Freddy’s. The challenge is helping our kids be critical thinkers, to manage their anxiety, to figure out how to curate their own internet experiences and to stand up to people out to scare them.

Middle grade kids have some developmental demands that make them particularly vulnerable:

  • They are shifting to be more peer-oriented and independent, meaning that if their 10-year old friend says it’s true then his voice might carry a tad more weight than your voice of reason does;
  • They become more aware of the wide, wide world and the scariness in it, which is why they may be fascinated by scary stories;
  • Their bodies are changing and/or their friends’ bodies are changing and/or they’re becoming more aware of impending change, which may cause them to sublimate this fear into urban legends. Think about it, adulthood is for real and true pretty scary but kids can’t really verbalize this kind of existential fear. It’s a lot easier to be terrified of murderous robotic rabbits.

And now you see why Goosebumps were all the rage for middlegrade 90s kids, too, right? These fears serve a developmental purpose and many of our kids will need grown up help to meet that challenge and grow past it.

So what can concerned parents do?

Set limits: Learn about parental controls. Turn on YouTube safety mode. If you want to install a blocker then by all means do. You may want to create rules like screen time happens in community rooms of the house or that certain apps may not be installed on a child’s tablet. You decide and stick to it.

But be realistic: You can limit access to these games and web sites and videos but you do need to know that your ability to do this will be hampered both by the limits of parental control and by all the kids whose parents don’t block access. Between phones and iPods and Kindle Fires and family computers at someone else’s house, you need to expect that even the most protected child is going to catch sight of these things. That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and have a Freddy’s free for all. No, you can still limit it in your home because you’re not just trying to protect your child from the sight of it, you’re also modeling how we care for ourselves in the internet age. We are modeling that if something disturbs you, you should click out. So, yes, live out your family values and set those limits up but don’t assume your work then is done. You’re still going to need to deal with it because your child is going to need to deal with it.

Focus on real consequences instead of punishment: Part of learning to handle the internet and peers is messing up. Kids have to watch a video sometimes to know, oh rats, I should not have watched that. Very often that sinking feeling is a big enough consequence that you won’t need to create any of your own. The internet has a lot of yucky things on it and even the tightest of parental controls won’t keep all of it from slinking through. It is very likely that children will see naked ladies and creepy videos on purpose and on accident. Talk about this possibility before it happens. Talk about what your family values are around this. Talk about what you expect them to do. Let them know that if they see something online that they don’t like, you want to hear about it. When the time inevitably comes, listen with sympathy and then reiterate the rules. What can they do (if anything) to prevent the likelihood of that happening? What should they do if it happens anyway?

Explain to them about their vulnerability: Let them know that this is part of being 8 or 9 or 10. Explain that scary things won’t always feel this scary. Let them know that you are there to help them get through this developmental hurdle. Talk to them about fears that they used to have (that they’d go down the bathtub drain, for instance) and tell that this is like that. You can say, “I know Five Nights at Freddy’s seems really real but it’s no more real than the bathtub drain.” Promise them that they won’t always be this scared. Sometimes knowing that there is a way out (even if you can’t see it) can help. And along those lines…

Share your own middle-grade struggles: I’m not saying sit down and watch old school Poltergeist with them but talk to them about the thing that scared you when you were their age and tell them how you grew out of it. This can be a good exercise for you, too, to remember how scary unreal scary things can be; to maybe come up with solutions (what worked for you?); and to give your child a concrete demonstration that these fears can be conquered. (Ok, maybe you still wouldn’t keep a clown doll at the end of your bed but I bet you no longer quake in fear about that tree outside your window, right?)

Help them get to the bottom of things: You don’t need to bookmark Snopes.com on your kid’s tablet but you can teach them basic information about truth, lies and urban legends. Understanding the way stories get written, how they spread and why we do it can help diminish some of their power.  How Stuff Works has a series of posts on urban legends and AmericanFolklore.net has resources for teachers and parents who might want to delve in further. For some kids, being able to get control in this way can help them feel more powerful and less scared.

Ask for help: Come to the Kids & Anxiety workshop next week to learn more about helping kids handle their worries appropriately. If you can’t be there, contact me and ask for my hand outs. If you think your child might benefit from counseling, let me know. If I’m not the right person to help him or her, likely I know a therapist who can. I’m also going to be running a group again this summer and you can learn more about that here.

Step One: Make the Leap

jumpingfish-insideWhen I was eighteen I dropped out of  Ohio State and spent the next few years working and trying to get my head on straight. While I was in school I skipped a lot of classes, skipped a lot of homework and generally wasted my money by sleeping through my 9am classes. When I went back to school at Portland State University I was super committed and ratcheted my GPA up by actually showing up to class and doing my homework.

I was very proud of myself.

Towards the end of my junior year I saw a notice in the school paper that the new University Studies program was looking for Peer Mentors, which was a scholarship position for juniors and seniors. Portland State was radically changing their curriculum to be more integrated and cross-discipline and the Peer Mentors would work one-on-one with professors to help incoming students in the Freshman Inquiry classes. To qualify, we had to have a certain GPA, get references from professors and offer a writing sample.

I wanted to apply but I was nervous. Even though my grades were much improved I still felt like the college slacker I’d once been and I was sure they’d see right through me. But what the heck, I thought, it won’t cost me anything but time to apply. I took a leap of faith and I got the position.

Twenty-one of us (plus an alternate) met that first day at orientation and I was positively gleeful. I’d finally proved that I had what it took to be a successful college student! I’d overcome my lackluster college (and high school) career where my bad attitude was more important to me than turning papers in on time to arrive here, in a scholarship position that would look great on my curriculum vitae. I felt like a big shot.

It was only later that I found out that exactly 22 people applied to be Peer Mentors, which meant that every single person who bothered to fill out the application got the job.

At first I was grouchy about this. I wanted to know I was a Peer Mentor because I’d beat out a bunch of other over-achievers. I wanted to believe that I’d been the best woman for the job and not just the default applicant.

But then I got to thinking. I wondered how many people were more qualified but talked themselves out of applying. Maybe the gauntlet we had to run was applying anyway — in spite of the fear and insecurity.

That made me think about how many other opportunities I’d probably missed out on by thinking there were surely a bunch of other people who had a better shot than I did. How many other things could I have done just by being brave enough to show up?

With this in mind, I started sending my writing work out. I got rejections, sure,  but I also got a few acceptances. (My first published piece was a poem that showed up in an obscure literary magazine published by Eastern Washington University. I was thrilled. So was my mom.) Then a few more and then a few more. And so on and so on.

This is my message to you: If there’s something that you want to accomplish but you’re scared to try, recognize that the fear is your biggest hurdle. That fear will stop a whole bunch of other people and narrow your playing field but you shouldn’t let it stop you. In fact, that fear is your friend because it’s going to winnow down the competition and make more room for you to do the thing you dream of doing.

What the heck, right? Just show up. Who knows what might happen?

Anxiety in the Middle of the Night

galaxy-insideIt’s 4am and you’re wide awake worrying. The house is still, you’re alone with your thoughts and they are brutal. Your worries loom dark and daunting and you listen to the hum of the refrigerator knowing that with every passing minute, tomorrow will be harder and more exhausting.

What do you do?

  1. Get out of bed: Tossing and turning, worrying about falling asleep will make things worse. Get up and take care of your physical self. Go to the bathroom, have a drink of water and stretch. Even though it might be tempting to turn on the TV or check your email, resist the lure of the lit up screen — it’ll wake you up further. Read a comforting book, perhaps a childhood favorite where everyone stays safe and sound. Listen to music that calms you and quiets your brain.
  2. Make a list: If it’s your to-do list that’s haunting you, write down every little thing you need to do and then trust the list to remember it for you. You can let it leave your mind when you’ve put it someplace else. Nothing is too small to list there; if thinking about getting it done is keeping you up, just write it down.
  3. Imagine a place of safety: Picture a place that makes you feel good. Is it the beach? A grove of trees? The swing set you spent your summers on as a kid? Take deep breaths and try to bring back sense memories. What sounds do you hear? How does the sand feel between your toes or the rusty chain feel in your hands? Imagine the rhythm of the waves, the sound of the wind in the leaves or the squeak of the swing as you pump your legs. Let yourself rest there.
  4. Remind yourself that you’re not alone: If you have a spiritual practice that includes belief in a higher power, prayer can be solace when you are at your lowest. (There’s a reason why that poem Footprints shows up in gift stores everywhere.) But if you are an atheist or unable to find comfort in your faith, you might imagine all the people who love you holding you up in their affection. Or you could try picturing all the people in the world who are awake and worrying and send them comfort and imagine that loving comfort coming back to you from them. If you need to hear another voice but are unable or uncomfortable contacting a friend or waking a loved one, remember that there are crisis lines that welcome your calls.

Even though the next night might seem a long way off, plan accordingly and create some coping tools. At least you won’t be facing the next sleepless night unprepared.

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