I'm not talking about scaring as a way of enforcing desirable behaviour, like "eat your veggies or the bogeyman will get you". I'm not even talking about serious scares like faking somebody's death. Just the regular ghost sounds, jumping up from behind with a "boo!", inside out eye lids...

As an older sibling, I did this to my brother and cousins all the time. They'd have a laugh too, after the initial scare. I still love to scare people, and I do it to my nephews aged 4 and 5. My husband feels that I'm scarring them or traumatizing them by doing that. I argue that they don't show signs of being deeply affected by it. They still like having me around. Husband argues back saying it's because they like other things I do with them, like playing and reading, and I'm family. But if I keep up the scaring, they may start to avoid me.

I obviously don't want to wait till that happens. So my question is, does scaring children really traumatize them? As I said before, I keep it "age appropriate"- at least according to me. Is that bad too; is any kind of scaring bad? Kids enjoy the occasional scary joy ride, though. So where do we draw the line?

P.S : My question concerns pre-schoolers above the age of, say 4, as I do think scaring babies confuses and upsets them.

Update : The parents don't mind as long as the the kids are occupied and aren't crying/complaining, which they don't, on being scared. (They do shout or run at the initial scare, I mean to say that it doesn't escalate beyond that) I've asked the parents, the kids haven't been particularly afraid of the dark or going into a room alone.

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    If they keep coming back to become scared then they are enjoying it... Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 15:16
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    I think the distinction is between startling a child and trying to scare them. I also think it matters how well you know the children - spooking a kid you just met is probably a bad idea. But it sounds like you are pretty involved in these kids lives, and you care enough to check with their parents, so I would keep playing the games.
    – Emerson
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:27
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    I also disagree with your husband - if you do this consistently and they still enjoy having you around, that is a great indicator they are not being traumatized. If you were, they likely wouldn't enjoy the other activities - they would just be waiting for the other shoe to drop and not have fun. The only other thing I would note is that just because they like the scary times now, does not mean that will last, so stay plugged into their reactions every time.
    – Emerson
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:50
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    Traumatizing or not, it doesn't seem very nice or that you're being a good influence. I have adults who do this to me sometimes and I warn them that one day I'll be startled and punch them in the face. I think if you put in a little effort you can find a nicer way to play with them.
    – user6589
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 15:09
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    @Aaron :) Of course! On the other hand you can kind of argue that everything "traumatizes" kids in a way, I mean, it's part of growing up. I think, rather than avoiding it, which realistically isn't possible, it's probably better to find ways to teach kids to talk about it and handle it. Then they become more resilient in general. (I'm talking about "small" traumas btw, not like, truly horrific events!) I mean sure, she has fears (she's pretty straightforward btw, we both use humor as a coping strategy), but on the other hand, she's still an awesome, successful, fully functional human being.
    – Jason C
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 15:38

5 Answers 5


I can't find any research on this typical but stepped-up-a-level game of peek-a-boo.

I think you have to go with your gut on this one. If any child seems to overly react, then likely you are overdoing it.

If you are actually trying to scare a child, we'd have to ask why, but this doesn't seem to be the case or you would not be asking. I suggest taking the time after a wee scare to ask the child if they like the game. At four and five, they are well capable of telling you if they don't or if they do like it. Kids are individuals, maybe one does and the other doesn't.

I had an uncle that tickled me. I hated it and frequently asked him to stop -- but while laugh-shrieking . Finally I stood up to him in front of the family and told him I hated the tickles and to please stop. He did. So, sometimes children can be afraid to tell you they don't like the game, but asking in a quiet moment can 'fix' that.

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    That would be a fun grant proposal, it could have a pop-up spider on page 3.
    – user26011
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 15:34
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    @notstoreboughtdirt I am not understanding your comment. What would be a fun grant proposal? Forgive me if I am being dense.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 15:49
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    I was thinking about research on this typical but stepped-up-a-level game of peek-a-boo. I doubt a reasonable study could be made, so you may as well do something silly like using the proposal as a setup to a jump scare, which is almost apropos in a proposal about studying jump scares.
    – user26011
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 16:18
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    Where do I get to give more upvotes for the situation about tickling? It used to be areal torture for me and everyone would think I do enjoy it.
    – Pavel
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 9:39
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    We had problems with both scaring and tickling with my children. Eventually, we had to adopt a strict policy against both; no tickling and no scaring. With our youngest child, he has been much different than the others, and he very much enjoys being tickled and he begs for it, so we have had to re-evaluate. With all the others, though, it was nothing but problems, and they generally disliked even a simple "boo!"
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 15:04

A lot of kids do loved being scared. It's the adrenaline rush that is given off I believe. I still love it now when I'm scared. My boy is constantly trying to make me jump and I in turn watch for it and try and get him back. He's loved this from the moment he could walk. If the children enjoy it then there is nothing wrong with it in my opinion and a game of peekaboo isn't going to traumatise. It's when they become uncomfortable that you have a problem and yes not every child loves to be scared so just know their boundaries.

As I said above my boy and I love to scare each other. By this I mean we hide behind walls and jump out. That's about as far as it will go with him however. Visually scaring him would cause tears and may traumatise. What I mean by visually is wearing a scary mask or sitting watching scary films. We read the Marvel Origins and there's a particular image within the Hulk book that always freaks him out and he hides. From my perspective it's not even remotely scary but from his it's absolutely terrifying. As parents it's our responsibility to know what is too much for our children and to ensure we protect them so it doesn't traumatise.

It very much depends on the child and as an adult it's your responsibility to not overstep their boundaries. It's easy enough to identify this. If they are laughing and coming back for more, they are enjoying it. If they don't and avoid you, chances are they aren't enjoying it and this could traumatise. A personal experience of mine is me (I would have been about 10 at the time), my sister (who was around 4 or 5) and my two uncles (who would have been around 16 years+) used to make the house as dark as possible. We would hide and have one of the uncles come and find us. They would make scary noises, bang on things and make everything as scary as possible. When they found us they would grab us and hang us over the stairs and swing us around. To this day we talk about it and remember how good it was. My sister being only 4 or 5 at the time loved it as did I. It was something we used to look forward doing. That being said we were tough children and loved being scared.

Really scary stuff is completely off limits and can traumatise. I was shown the clown out of "It" when I was just a child (I was very young. Probably around 2 and I was made to watch it. Not by my Mother may I add). I went through a phase of thinking clowns lived in lampposts and that they would come out of them to get me. This I was told caused problems and night time was a terrible time. That being said I grew up loving the dark and still do, so long term it didn't have a negative impact on me and I have no irrational fear of clowns either. Actually I'm pretty hard to scare and every horror film I now watch is mundane, whether that plays back to watching "It" is another story.

You've done the right thing consulting the parents and I really don't think there is anything to worry about. Playing pranks and scaring each other is part of growing up. If you're not going to do it, chances are siblings and/or friends are at some point.

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    "Playing pranks and scaring each other is part of growing up." I agree, though I am not sure I'd like what you did. I remember seeing The Wizard of Oz and that the witch as so scary (She's still the best, to me.). My one year younger brother had nightmares -- I think he was four. We didn't have TV until I was five -- Canada only got two channels at that time and my dad thought it was a fad. (Yes, I'm getting old!)
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 17:18
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    @Willow yes I guess it depends on the child. My step-son is scared of visuals I guess so like scary pictures or scary programs but generally up for a prank if you will. Pull out a witch mask and jump out at him he'd probably faint with fear, remove the mask and he'd jump then laugh his head off. I myself was a tougher child. I didn't scare easy and I still don't. For me I loved being scared. The scarier the better. It is strange how we each act with being scared.
    – anon
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 17:24
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    We had free rein of a wide area -- wider than my parents wanted or knew, and times were different. We lived in a semi-rural area, Baie-D'Urfé -- the population is still under 4,000.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 17:37
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    I didn't downvote, but I don't completely agree with this answer. While it may apply to some children (my own amongst them), some others may have had a genuinely traumatic experience at some point, or may just be more sensitive than others. They don't all react the same. It's best not to assume anything, and to pay close attention to the target of your games (ideally, knowing the child well before you attempt such a scare). It's often just fun and games, but it can sometimes be legitimately harmful. It's your responsibility to check beforehand.
    – flith
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 7:12
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    @flith I'm going to extend the answer at some point because reading back I realise I'm focusing on me and my sister a little and we were tough kids. We didn't scare easy. We still don't. My step-son on the other hand does and is quite easily scared. It could be overdone with him and it could quite easily turn to tears. Visually scaring him could be traumatic.
    – anon
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 7:16

I think it would be easy to play medical science games to try to find psychological research back and forth. However, we'd probably have to spend quite a lot of time coming to agreement on the definition of trauma.

Instead, it may be easier to find a "safe" level of scaring that your husband can agree with, and stay there.

When you scare someone, you get a response out of them. You get to see that response on the surface, and with the experience of a lifetime of being a human, you can make some half decent guesses as to what that response is doing to them deep in the core (where trauma could be a valid concern). It's hard to prove you're not doing anything to them, but you can argue that you're not doing anything unreasonable by looking at the rest of their life. When they're going about their day to day business, do you see similar responses out of them? How much of this "trauma inducing activity" occurs in their day to day life, without you? Does your nephew skin their knee and fall apart crying? That's certainly more traumatic than getting spooked. How do I know? When you spook them they giggle. When they skin their knee you can see they truly got hurt by it. If they can shake off the deeper trauma of a skinned knee within a minute or two, they can certainly shake off getting spooked!

So if they skin their knee every now and then (which my kid certainly will), you can be quite certain that life is already gearing them up to deal with trauma way more brutal than your mere spooking games. They're becoming adults, one day at a time.

On the other hand, if your nephew is a fragile little butterfly (which it doesn't sound like is the case), and lives a sheltered life where nothing ever disrupts them, then you might need to be more careful. This child may be one that needs a bit more care, and less spooking until they are ready to take on a bit more of what life throws our way. If your nephews are special needs children, then there's a decent chance that your instincts about what is traumatic and what are not may not be so accurate when it comes to them, so you may want to intentionally play it safe. The parents may be able to help there.

Fit your scaring games into the child's life, and you'll almost certainly do well by them.

One particular sign I'd look at is in their response to being scared. Obviously you hope they laugh at it. If they don't laugh, that's a bad sign you're crossing a line. However, watch how they laugh. Do they laugh while trying to get closer to you or otherwise connect with you, or do they have that nervous laugh where they're trying to distance themselves from you? If they're connecting with you after the scare, you know they're overcoming it. They saw the spook, it shook them up, and then afterward they wanted to get closer to the one responsible for the spooking. That's almost certainly healthy.

If when you spook them, they try to withdraw from you afterwards, that might suggest that your husband is right. If they are uncomfortable with the person who is spooking them, that starts to suggest that you are affecting the way they view you (and by corollary, other people) in a negative way. That would also be a good sign that you should stop.

A good sign that you're the one who is right would be if your nephews start trying to scare you in return, but can't seem to do it because they've got too big of a grin on their face while doing it!

  • Hi Cort -- I agree, if they try to scare you -- it's a win.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 21:02
  • Aah, im torn! They do connect with me after the scare, sometimes even feel bad when it's time for me to leave. But they don't try to scare me in return; in fact I don't think they've ever done that. I'll try and find out if they do it to other kids though, who are their age or smaller.
    – learner101
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 2:54
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    It's all a balance. I mentioned the idea of them trying to scare you because that would be pretty solid proof that everything's just fine. Connecting with you is also evidence, but its the kind of evidence that's harder to use when discussing it with your husband, because it's really hard to describe the feeling of connection in words.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 3:47
  • This is a great answer. Love the more brutal than your mere spooking games. That made me chuckle. +1
    – anon
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:15
  • +1! As a parent I do this sort of spooking with my child on a regular basis, and other family members do as well (mostly following my lead). It always follows up with some kind of closeness (usually a hug). Now when I come home from work he usually hides behind mom to jump out at me, which is awesome (I totally play up the being surprised part too).
    – Emerson
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:39

a) I guess it depends on the kind of scare and b) you never know until it is too late.

If it's just a basic reflex thing ("boo", "rolling eyes" etc.) with not much meaning => then fine. Most kids like to do it themselves! Note that you can pretty much do those things while being truly funny, not scary (i.e. by getting into it slowly, by having the kids do it along with you and so on). At around age 5-8 or so, children learn to disassociate our actions from reality; i.e. that's the time where they learn about jokes and all such things that are not quite true. Check for signs that they know that you are not actually evil when scaring them in this way, and you'll be all right. If you enter the room, do they tend to hide behind their parents or come running at you? That should tell you everything.

On the other end of the spectrum, what obviously does traumatize them is phsychological scare of the kind that you normally would not inflict casually. Like frequently hearing the parents shouting at each other, with one or both of them threatening with leaving, or worse. Or being left alone at very young ages while not being mobile yet, for long hours every day. Let's not even get into wars. That is not what you are asking though.

Borderline would be ghost stories. I recall some uncle telling really gritty mystery stories once while we were camping somewhere in the woods (me age 10 or so). I definitely had bouts of not liking being alone in dark places so much after that (but got over it). It depends how strong the kid's imagination is, and how good they are at telling a story/sarcasm/irony from reality. They say that that's not a given until 8-9 years old.

That said, I personally make it a point to not lie to or spook children at all, I don't use irony/sarcasm or the more rough "humour / stupid-talk" many adults use amongst themselves (and sure, I do engage in these with adult friends). All children I met so far (my own and others) were very appreciative of being treated earnestly. The last thing I want to do with them is to give them yet another adrenaline spike... they get that plenty from friends, school, older children etc.

Last point: as a parent myself, I would be very unhappy if someone spooked, tickled or pulled my childrens legs. Just saying. If the parents you are involved with don't mind then fine, but... really, I would not make it a habbit with all children. Are the children missing out if you stop doing it? If not, and you are obviously are not sure if it's OK to do it, then that would be a clear sign to stop.


The parents typically know what the kids enjoy something and when it's just the adult enjoying the kid's reaction. If the parents don't mind - and are not just saying they don't mind to be polite - it's probably okay.

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    "Probably ok" is not really cutting it for me, when children are concerned. The OP is still responsible for his actions, even if the parents are fine with it. And there are plenty of indifferent parents who are (like the OP stated) happy to get rid of the children for a while as long as they don't cry...
    – AnoE
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:29
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    I know consulting the parents is the bare minimum expected of you, but I do feel like i need to do a bit more than just the bare minimum. It could also come in handy when I have my own kids someday. And I agree with @AnoE - my husband was, and got me worried, more than the parents were. They have their hands full with 2 high energy kids, and are happy with just about anything that takes them off their hands for a while.
    – learner101
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:12

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