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Carnival and children: Fear fantasy or phobia?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Carnival is a time when fantasy is experienced in a festive way. It is a period of exuberant joy, an opportunity to get out of oneself and enter into a world apart, breaking preconceptions and routines. Masks and disguises are used, several aspects of one’s image are hidden, reality is concealed. For some, this aspect of Carnival is what gives it its true charm, for others it is a source of fear, a cause of phobia.

The phobia regarding the use of masks (masklophobia) is defined as an irrational fear of masks, disguised people, and mascots. This fear is common in children and its symptoms are frequent in the first years of the child's development, typically between birth and 8 years of age. Some of these symptoms are excessive sweating, tachycardia, screaming, shaking, crying, hiding, running away from the disguised person, among others. These symptoms can be part of a panic attack that can occur nearby someone masked.

During Carnival, as well as Halloween, it is common to notice these symptoms, but it is important to emphasize that these fears are part of a child's normal development. Effectively, the use of masks or disguises makes it impossible for the child to verify whether the person constitutes a threat, as he/she cannot perceive true facial expressions. Another reason could be that the child is used to the fictional figure he/she sees, for example, on television, and cannot distinguish fantasy from reality when faced with the human-sized fictional character. On the other hand, because they are used to and advised to avoid contact with strangers, children may feel confused and afraid when asked to socialize with people wearing a costume that seem strange to them. It is natural for these symptoms to decrease by the age of 6, the period in which children begin to develop advanced facial recognition skills and that, by adulthood, they disappear completely, with the complete and mature development of these skills.

Although considered normal, these fears should not disrupt the family routine, that is, the family should not start avoiding contexts and situations due to the child's fear. Also, in a situation of extreme fear accompanied by a severe compromise in the child's daily life, there are several psychological interventions that constitute more permanent solutions, for example, the use of exposure techniques. Nonetheless, these should be applied by a qualified and trained professional.

Some advice may be useful if you have a child or a family member who is excessively afraid of masks, people in costumes and/or mascots:

  • Keep calm first. It’s natural to have an urge to remove the fearful or phobic child from the phobic situation, but this removal will only reinforce the fear and/or phobia. Do not minimize the child's fears - understand and accept them, only then you’ll be able to remain calm.

  • Create situations in which you can expose the child to his/her phobia, for example, in ludic activities in which the adult paints or masks himself/herself in front of the child. This type of activities allows the child to realize that the adult is still the same person, with or without a disguise. Do it slowly and progressively. If at any point you notice that the child is markedly anxious, step back, and remove part of the disguise.

  • Prepare in advance for the moments when the child may have to encounter people in disguises. Throw a party with familiar people who are invited to wear some kind of disguise, such as hats or accessories. In this way, the child will get used to the concept of costume, as he/she knows the people who are wearing disguises. Involve the child in festivities where masks and disguises are used, talk to him/her about how fun the occasion is, always emphasizing the distinction between reality and fantasy.

With these tips in mind, we wish you a happy Carnival! However, don't refrain yourself from seeking professional help if you feel that your case, or that of someone close to you, exceeds what is considered normative.

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