Here comes Halloween. Grocery stores, big box stores, even the local hardware store, are festooned with pumpkins, life sized figures of skeletons and witches and graveyards. It’s all in fun, right? Right. But not for the anxious child.
An anxious child already seems to have nerve endings too close to the surface. Generally nervous about new experiences and the unfamiliar, Halloween presents an additional challenge. For some anxious children, Halloween is the monster under the bed writ huge! Things that go “bump in the night” are not at all entertaining. What’s a parent to do?
If you have a child under the age of 7, especially if your child tends to be anxious, it may be helpful to remember some basic principles about this age group.
First, remember that toddlers and preschoolers are at the age of what is called “magical thinking”. They often really can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is pretend. You understand that a scary mask is just a mask. Little ones often think that the mask is a real monster. Often this stage lasts to some extent until age 6 or 7.
Second, it’s equally important to remember that one of the “jobs” of childhood is learning how to master and cope with fears. It is not a service to any child, even the highly anxious child, to go to great lengths to avoid everything about Halloween. Doing so only reinforces their idea that Halloween is too scary for them to handle. The holiday can be an opportunity to help your child gain confidence. The trick is to gradually introduce frightening things so your child can figure out that what seems fearsome is often only fantasy and that they can manage the fear.
Perhaps most important of all is to remember that when we have young children, the focus needs to be on their needs. If your very favorite holiday is Halloween, if you delight in going to Haunted Houses (the scarier the better); if you find it fun to make meatballs into hairy eyeballs — this isn’t the year if you have young children. You’ll have lots of time when the kids are older to indulge in your Halloween horrors. If you have a preschooler or younger elementary aged child, the focus needs to be on fun, not fright. Otherwise, you may be dealing with night terrors for the next year!
7 Ways to Detox Halloween for Your Anxious Child
- Start with yourself. If you have your own anxieties about Halloween, do what you can to put a good face on it for the sake of your child. Adding your anxieties to your child’s will only make him or her more anxious. Your self-care this year may mean quietly enlisting someone else to do duty as a Trick-or-Treat chaperone or to hand out treats. That’s okay — as long as you don’t advertise that you are doing so because Halloween is too frightening for you. You might want to consider doing some therapy to resolve your issues so you are better able to handle it next year.
- Kids generally do better with anything unusual if they are prepared. Start talking with your children about Halloween now. Find some children’s books in the library to help you introduce the idea that Halloween can be scary but that it is all just pretend. Talk about your positive memories of Halloween adventures and costumes when you were a child.
- Desensitize your child to Halloween masks and traditions. Children are most afraid of what is unknown or startling. Bring some masks home. Don’t put them on. Not yet. First play with them. Let your child take the lead in making a game of it. Squish them up. Toss them around. Put them on the kids’ stuffed animals and laugh. Make a Trick or Treating pretend game with dolls and toys.
- Costumes: Focus on the fun, not the scary. Princes and Princesses, robots and kitty cats are just as Halloween-y as ghosts and monsters. Do remember that what interests a young child one day, may bother them or bore them the next. Don’t get too invested in what they should wear. One year, by then almost 3 year old son did want to go out with his big sister to Trick or Treat but every attempt at creating a costume upset him. The solution? He decided he wanted to wear his daddy’s hat and be Daddy. Problem solved.
- Choose events according to your child’s temperament. If going Trick or Treating in the dark will be too anxiety provoking for your child, consider going to a daytime event instead. Many communities have a parade or party for children. If the chaos of a crowd of costumed kids will overwhelm your child, think about having a play date with just one or two friends and play dress up. Serve up a treat and you’ve “done” Halloween for this year.
- Consider whether staying home to pass out treats would be easier on your child this year. Don’t coax or push a child to participate. Just have a great time ohhing and ahhing over your visitors’ costumes. Chances are, your child will naturally be curious and will eventually join you. Do ask some of the Trick or Treaters to take off their masks to show your child that there are real children underneath.
- Don’t set up or wait for the meltdown. If your anxious child does want to go Trick or Treating, limit your adventure to a few houses where you and your child know the people who live there. If your child wants to stay out for a bit, watch for early signs that she is getting tired and/or stressed. Find a way to put a positive spin on calling it a night.
With thoughtful planning, Halloween can be an opportunity, not a set-up, for an anxious child. Parents can help their children make progress in mastering their fears by emphasizing the fun over the frightening, by introducing them to unusual and potentially frightening things gradually, and by carefully monitoring when enough is enough. Happy Halloween!