Halloween is weeks away, but one disturbing trend has already taken over the news and social media: scary clowns. And it’s not all make-believe; sightings of creepy, threatening, even violent people in face paint and costumes started in South Carolina in late August, when kids reported clowns trying to lure them into the woods. In the months since there have been sightings of menacing clowns all over the country, and 12 people have been arrested, mostly for making clown-related threats to harm kids at schools or colleges.

Is this a rash of copycat behavior, or an epidemic of hoaxes — or both? Either way, the threat of malice has some schools and communities on edge, and kids are being told not to dress as clowns for Halloween — not even Ronald McDonald. And kids are asking parents whether they should be worried.

Fear of clowns

Clowns, of course, have been a dependable if perplexing source of fear for decades, with horror stories like Stephen King’s IT — a new movie is coming out next year — transforming children’s entertainers into sadistic murderers. But the fact is, clowns are frightening to many people even without the help of the King of Horror; they have a specific phobia of clowns, also known as coulrophobia.

Related: Are Kids’ Halloween Costumes Getting Too Adult?

What about clowns inspires such unease?

Some psychologists believe that the fear is in part due to the fact that we cannot read genuine emotion on a clown’s face.

“When you take away our ability to read someone’s expression, it’s disturbing because we don’t know what they’re feeling —are they happy, sad, angry? — what to expect, or how to react,” explains Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating children with anxiety at the Child Mind Institute.

Clowns are also often unpredictable and manic, which can generate apprehension, particularly in children.

“Fear of clowns really starts at a very young age, as young as four or five,” Dr. Bubrick explains. “What usually happens is a child is invited to a birthday party, and when they get there, with no preparation from parents, they see a freaky-looking dude wearing a wig, and big shoes, and a weird outfit, and a big nose, talking in a weird way, doing weird things.”

Some kids love it, he adds, but some get really scared, thrust into a situation with no explanation and expected to like it. “And those who are predisposed to anxiety have an even stronger reaction.” In fact, according to Dr. Bubrick, fear of clowns is one of the most common phobias in children.

Related: My 4-Year-Old Was Scared By a Halloween Store. What Can I Do?

Creepy Clown epidemic

As adults, clowns are thought to make us uncomfortable because they are look almost, but not quite, like real humans — a hypothesis called the “uncanny valley,” which applies to mannequins and human-like robots, too.

Our fear of clowns applies equally to garden-variety examples that aren’t secretly multidimensional ancient evil demons, like Pennywise from IT. So it comes as no surprise that media coverage of what’s being called the “Creepy Clown” epidemic has gotten our attention. Several elementary, middle and high schools went on lockdown last week in response to them new rumors and threats. And as the media continues to follow the story the risk of “behavioral contagion” increases — that is, copycat behavior inspired by media stories, whether they are true or not.

So children are asking parents what is going on, and whether they should be worried. What do we tell them?

First, it is important for parents to let kids know that most of the chatter about evil clowns is just that —chatter. The likelihood of your child seeing or being threatened by a menacing clown (“joke” or otherwise) is very small. If your child sees a clown, it is probably just a clown. Remain attentive to your children’s concerns, but not overly so.

What Can I Do?

If your child is fearful of a clown attack, or a run-in is reported in your area, here are some tips on how to help your child:

  • Be your child’s news source. However you decide to talk about clowns, fear, anxiety and the hysteria that surrounds us today, it’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells them. You want to be able to convey the facts and set the emotional tone, and pass on any wisdom in a calm and authoritative way.
  • Take your cues from your children. Invite them to tell you anything they may have heard about clowns, and how they feel. Give them ample opportunity to ask questions. Be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions. You want to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.
  • Be realistic. Clowns aren’t “real,” and they’re not dangerous. A clown is usually someone dressed up in a costume with the intention of doing his job and entertaining children and families.
  • Be reassuring. Children are likely to focus on whether something frightening or bad could happen to them. So it’s important to reassure your child that it’s highly unlikely anyone will try to scare or hurt them, and mention the safety measures that have been taken to prevent this kind of thing.
  • Be available. If your child is upset, just spending time with him may make him feel safer. Children find great comfort in routines, and doing ordinary things together as a family may be the most effective form of reassurance.