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If you've ever felt uneasy around Ronald McDonald, or found yourself heading for concessions during the clown act at the circus, you're certainly not alone.
There's a reason for that: Clowns can be terrifying.
Of course, that's not their intention. But for many kids -- who later carry their fears into adulthood -- the sight of a big-nosed, face-painted goofball is no laughing matter. In fact, there's even a name for this uncontrollable fear, Coulrophobia, which is believed to be derived from the Greek prefix meaning "one who goes on stilts."
It's counter-intuitive, really, as to why kids should be terrified by something designed to make them laugh. But the fear is worth acknowledging. A few years ago, University of Sheffield researchers asked more than 250 kids what they thought about clowns. The overwhelming response? "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children," according to researcher Dr. Penny Curtis. "Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."
Even grown-ups will readily admit to still being freaked out by the entertainers. Just ask Michelle Brown, a 36-year-old mother of two from Fort Collins, Colo. Brown says her fear first began as a young girl, after reading the Steven King horror classic, "It," which features a demonic clown who terrorizes children.
"Ever since then, I've never been a fan," she admits. "The whole thing with the painted-on smiles … it just looks abnormal to me. It's not funny -- it's just creepy."
Alex Anderson, a master's level counselor in Fort Collins, agrees that popular culture has a lot to do with instilling a fear of clowns. And that fear -- from a movie, say, 30 years ago -- could unknowingly be passed from parent to child. So if you're freaked out, your kid likely is, too.
But don't take all the blame, he says. The whole clown persona, from the makeup face to the outlandish costumes, can raise kids' defenses.
"It's the unknown," he says. "They don't know who's behind the makeup, and kids are taught to be wary of strangers."
Your best bet in beating your kid's clown phobia? Small exposures, leading up to personal interactions. Watch a movie featuring a happy clown, he suggests, then try a circus -- if you, yourself, can stand it.
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