I practiced Kidpower with my grownups, and I am excited about my cool clown costume.

“Scary Clowns.”
“Creepy Clowns.”
“Crazy Clowns.”

People hiding behind masks to scare or hurt others is not new. Sadly, a rash of pranks, disruptive behavior, thefts, and dangerous attacks from people wearing clown masks has broken out in many places, been well-publicized, and copied. Some news stories are credible, and some are reporting a hoax.

Parents are now asking us questions like:

“My young son loves clowns, and he doesn’t know anything about this. How to I prepare him without making him scared?”

“How can I support my teen daughters, who are terrified after hearing about the Creepy Clowns from their friends?”

As always, Kidpower’s goal is to prepare kids to make safe choices and to support them in feeling confident instead of scared. Instead of putting upsetting images in kids’ minds, we can teach Stranger Safety rules, including safety with clowns. Below are our recommendations for how adults can approach this issue, how to prepare older kids and teens if they encounter a problem, and how to teach and practice skills with younger kids to avoid potential danger.

The Real Issue Is Behavior – Not Costumes

To protect the emotional safety of younger kids, we want to avoid having gory costumes or terrifying displays where they are likely to see them. Keep in mind that ANY costume can be creepy rather than funny or silly – and can be misused. Despite their past history and recent events, clown costumes are not the real problem – the real issue is behavior.

We want to avoid overreacting in ways that make everyone more anxious without making anyone safer. For example, with Halloween approaching, some schools are banning clown costumes. Unfortunately, this reaction sends a message that somehow clowns are the problem, especially with younger kids who tend to be literal.

Instead, we can use this situation as an opportunity to educate kids about safe and unsafe behavior and say that no one – regardless of costume – is allowed to make jokes about harming or scaring anyone else. We can encourage kids acting as clowns to be silly without being hurtful to themselves or others – and to give positive messages about confidence and fun. 

Traditionally, clowns were not for kids — but for adults. They were court jesters, social commentators, and cultural pranksters. As they evolved into figures that were supposed to be fun, clowns still often relied on slapstick comedy where they were making people laugh by being humiliated, getting hurt, or acting unkindly to others. For many adults, as well as kids, the conflicting happy/sad faces and sweet/cruel actions of clowns have evoked more fear than fun.

The good news is that many clown artists today create joy – and they do not deserve to be condemned or attacked because of the destructive actions of a relatively few people. Organizations like Clowns Without Borders bring laughter and community to kids and families struggling with difficult challenges such as poverty, disaster, or illness. Caring Clowns visit people who are in hospitals and nursing homes, bringing smiles to sad faces.

How to Support and Prepare Older Children and Teens

If young people are already worried about the “Creepy Clowns:”

1. Listen and acknowledge their feelings. Someone hiding behind any kind of mask to try to hurt or trick people IS creepy. It captures the imagination in a very upsetting way. Discuss how the people in the creepy clown stories and scary jokes are using clown costumes to create an emotional trigger leading to fear or worry. Instead of getting overwhelmed, we can manage our emotional triggers, look at what is happening objectively, and rehearse a plan for how to protect our safety.

2. Make and practice a safety plan. Visualizing and practicing what to do to be safe instead of just talking or worrying about bad things that might happen can help greatly to reduce anxiety with productive action.

For example, suppose while they are out in your community, kids see one or more people in clown masks or other costumes (outside of places or times you’d expect, such as a Halloween parade). Their safety plan is to move away and go to a safer place where there are people who can help them – such as inside a store. They can practice acting out how to leave with calm awareness and respectful confidence, not answering the person if called out to, getting to a safe place with lots of people, and calling on their phones to report what they saw – or interrupting a busy store worker, like a cashier, to ask for help.

They can report that they saw someone whose behavior made them nervous, whether wearing a costume or not, and they need to do their best to be accurate about what actually happened. They can practice yelling and running away if the person tries to come close to them.

3. Put things into perspective. Discuss how the media can make it look like terrible things are happening to almost everyone, almost all the time. We need to learn how to set boundaries with the media so we are filtering for information while protecting ourselves emotionally. Watching or reading upsetting stories over and over does not make anyone safer – it just makes them scared.  Unfortunately, the person most likely to harm any of us is someone we know – so learning a number of social safety skills for being safe with people, including how to set boundaries, is really important.

4. Take a physical self-defense workshop. Learning or reviewing how to defend yourself physically can be very helpful in reducing anxiety, increasing confidence, and increasing competence in being prepared to escape an attack. This does not have to take a lot of time. Our introductory Kidpower, Teenpower, or Fullpower (for adults) Safety and Self-Defense workshops are just one 4-to-5 hour session on one day.  Here’s an article about how to choose a good self-defense workshop.

5. Be safe in your imaginations. A vivid imagination can be an enormous blessing – and, if unchecked, can create a lot of trauma. Instead of visualizing the terrible things that might happen, we can learn to be safe in our imaginations – and how to teach our kids to do the same. Turn off media repetitions and rehashing of upsetting news. Interrupt people who are discussing horror stories and say, “I don’t want to talk about this. Let’s talk something positive or fun.” Focus on the good. Work on mindfulness to stay in the here and now, feeling your breath, seeing the beauty of a flower, or the smile on a loved one’s face.

How to Protect Younger Children

For younger children who don’t know about the “Creepy Clown” crime stories, instead of giving them ideas to worry about, prepare them with skills for what to do to be safe.

1. Teach Kidpower’s Stranger Safety rules and include people in costumes and uniforms along with other examples.  Explain in a cheerful, matter-of-fact voice, “Most people are good, and this means that most strangers are good. A stranger is just someone you don’t know well. Your safety rule is the same with animals you don’t know well as with people you don’t know well. Your job is to move away and Check First with your adults. Remember, a stranger can look like anyone. You are a stranger to lots of people, and they are strangers to you.  A person in a uniform is still a stranger. A person with a puppet is still a stranger. A person who looks like a clown is still a stranger. You don’t need to worry – you just need to follow your safety plan. Stay together with me – and, if we do get separated and you see someone you don’t know well, move away and Check First!”

2. Practice skills for Staying Together, Moving Away, and Checking First.  Ask them imagine that you are at a Farmer’s Market or a community event, busy shopping, looking around, talking with other adults, or texting. Coach them practice using their awareness and staying together with you while you pretend to move quickly from activity to activity. Now ask them to imagine that they see something they would really like, such as a person with kittens, bunnies, or puppies or giving away free samples of something they like to eat. Coach them to move away from this person and interrupt you to Check First by asking, “May I go pet the animals?” Or, “May I please have a taste of the sample?” Then you say, “Thank you for Checking First, Let’s go together.”

3. Remember that clowns and other people in costumes sometimes may have different rules. While we might be surprised and uncomfortable if a stranger were approaching our kids in a public place, someone with a puppet or a costume at a Farmer’s Market, shopping mall, or community event might approach kids as part of being hired to entertain as a clown or another character. What is important is that children ask us first (Check First!) rather than just trusting this person – and that kids know they have the right to refuse this kind of attention. You can coach kids by saying, “Imagine that friendly person in a colorful costume is making  balloon creatures or face painting and inviting you to come over. Suppose you don’t want to. You can look at me and say, “No, I don’t want to go.” Coach them to repeat that and reply, “Thanks for telling me. I will tell them, ‘Not today, thanks!'” Next you can coach kids for checking first: Say, “Now suppose you DO want to go. You can check first and say, ‘May I talk to the clown?'” Coach them to repeat that and reply, “Thanks for asking! We’ll go together.”

Promote Safety Instead of Fear

We don’t want to let fear stop our kids – or ourselves – from having fun, meeting new people, and doing interesting things. Instead of fearing clowns, we can set boundaries on harmful behavior, regardless of how someone is dressed – prepare our kids with the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe – and support clown performers who just want to make people happy.

Finally, if you are planning for Halloween activities that will include kids, please check out our 8 Kidpower safety tips for planning a fun and safe Halloween, which is also available in Spanish.

kidpower-comics-series-collage-350hKidpower Safety Comics for children, youth, and teens provide an entertaining and useful way to introduce and practice safety skills.

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.

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