Making Halloween Not So Scary for Young Kids

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The sights and sounds of Halloween during — and prior to — the month of October are inescapable. Porches and lawns display jack-o-lanterns, cobwebs, black cats and witches on broomsticks. LED lights lead to haunted garages and ghostly shadows peer through attic windows. Halloween decorations have evolved extravagantly over the years and now play music, move, talk and make spooky sounds.

Beyond the neighborhood, it’s difficult to find a store, restaurant or other public venue that doesn’t display some sort of Halloween decor. Retailers have even labeled the first Tuesday in September as “Orange Tuesday.” Put simply, just about everywhere your child looks in October, she is bound to see something Halloween-related.

For many children, the spooky and sometimes gruesome imagery floating around this time of year is taken in stride alongside the excitement that accompanies costumes and trick-or-treating. But for other children, especially those under age 5, Halloween images and themes can be more frightening than exciting. Caught up in and surrounded by the excitement that accompanies this holiday, children do not always know how to express their worries or seek help when they are uncomfortable.

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Distinguishing Fantasy From Reality
For the very young child, boundaries blur between what is real and what is pretend. Wishes come true, Santa brings gifts and the Tooth Fairy magically knows when a tooth has come out. The mind’s ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not emerges over time, and this development process is often nonlinear.

Keeping this in mind, we can now begin to see Halloween from the perspective of a young child. Halloween is a time when monsters — that usually only lurk under the bed around bedtime — are out in the open, walking around, talking and sometimes even jumping out in a surprising (and terrifying) way. With some thought and preparation, parents can help ensure that their child’s Halloween night out is fun (and emotionally safe) for all. Here are tips to consider:

• Young children who believe in magical ideas benefit from parents talking with them about things that are pretend. For example: “That’s just a little boy in a costume.” “That’s Sally’s mommy. Her face is painted.” “Those are decorations. They can be turned on and off.”

• Keep the night short and predictable for young children, and visit only familiar houses.

• Choose your young child’s costume carefully, keeping his age and emotional development in mind.

Remember that a child’s expressions of worry about these themes can easily be confused with excitement. Such behaviors are signs that an experience has become too much for a child to handle comfortably and independently.

We recommend that parents use the Lucy Daniels Center’s 90 Percent Rule as a guideline to help decide if their child is ready to undertake a significant new challenge: Present a challenge or experience to your child only if you are at least 90 percent sure that he or she will succeed.

For parents of more anxious children, preparation begins long before Halloween night. Keep in mind that many public venues look and feel different to a child when they are decorated for Halloween. You can prepare your child by talking about what you may encounter. For example, “The grocery store is selling candy for Halloween, so they may have some scary decorations when we walk past that part of the store.” Talk ahead of time about whose houses you will be visiting and explain that the people answering the doors may look different, but that you know they are your neighbors and friends. With these thoughtful measures in place, you can help ensure that Halloween night is a fun and safe experience for the entire family.

The Lucy Daniels Center provides mental health services for children from birth to age 12, the time of life when the most effective interventions are possible. 

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