From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us! ~ Traditional prayer
Here comes Halloween. If you’re a parent, chances are your kids are planning their costumes and looking forward to trick-or-treating. If you live in a neighborhood populated by dozens of kids, chances are you’ve already bought five pounds of candy for the kids who will come to your door.
But as your family gets ready to celebrate the holiday, please consider the possible negative impact on your children. Not all kids have the temperaments or preparation to deal with the images and activities that teens and some adults think is just part of the fun of Halloween night.
Be aware that your friendly neighborhood may not look so friendly to a child who hasn’t been out and about after dark — especially if porches are festooned with mummies and skeletons. Kids who have been taught not to talk to (or take candy from) strangers may be confused by your encouragement to knock on strangers’ doors for treats. Gruesome lawn displays and teens in bloody costumes marauding the night during trick-or-treat hours may be terrifying to young children. A masked adult jumping out at a child can transform a holiday into the stuff of nightmares for years.
On the plus side, some researchers have suggested that dressing up like vampires and having a party with some spooky games may be empowering for kids. The world may not really be home to witches and goblins, but it can be a scary place at times. Pretend games about things that go bump in the night may help them to confront their fears of monsters under the bed and ghosts in dark places. Discovering that a witch is a friend in costume or being startled by someone they know jumping from behind a bush may give them practice for dealing with scary things. Watching the annual TV special about Linus and the Great Pumpkin may encourage kids to have faith in something they believe in even when others don’t understand.
What a parent can do to keep the fun in Halloween:
- Consider your own child’s unique personality.
Children have unique personalities from the time they are born. Some kids seem to be thrillseekers from an early age. Others are more easily frightened. Resist any peer pressure to push your child not to be a “fraidy cat.” Take your child’s personality into account when planning Halloween decorations or choosing Halloween events.
- Help your child know what to expect.
When kids know what to expect, they are less likely to be afraid. In the days prior to Halloween, talk about the holiday and what they are likely to see and experience. There are many children’s books that can be helpful. Check your local library and bookstore for age-appropriate stories. When my kids were in preschool, they particularly enjoyed “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book” that features Sesame Street’s Grover. Older children might like “The Night Before Halloween” by Natasha Wing.
Sharing stories leads naturally to conversation. Being reassured that you will be there for them if they can’t handle something will allow your kids to stretch their ability to manage feeling anxious.
- Be sensitive to your child’s recent experiences.
Children who have had some direct experience with frightening events may be upset by scary movies or pretend play that involves injury or death. This is especially true of children who have recently been victimized, who have been injured (or seen someone else injured) or who have recently had to deal with the death of a person or pet they loved. Consider whether this is a year that they need to be helped to sit out the holiday. Shut off the porch light to discourage trick-or-treaters and rent a movie about something unrelated to Halloween.
- Talk about what’s real and what’s pretend.
The difference between what’s real and what’s pretend isn’t obvious to young children. This discussion is especially important if you are aware of displays that are inappropriate for kids to see but can’t be avoided. You may not be able to influence what your neighbors choose to put on their lawn, but you can reduce the negative impact by talking to your kids about how the display is made and discussing why you think it’s objectionable.
- Be smart about trick or treating.
Plan where your children will be going and think hard about how to keep them safe. In my small-town neighborhood, groups of children go out with an adult who waits at the curb while the kids knock on doors. This gives the kids a sense of independence but keeps an adult’s eyes on the situation. Friends who live in a huge condo tell me that the condo association has a rule that kids must go out in groups of three or more and can only go to units where the light is on. Other friends in a big city confine trick-or-treating to going to the homes of five friends. Families in each of these communities have assessed the risks and found a way to preserve the fun.
A little stress is a good thing in children’s lives. Finding they can manage their fears and handle difficult sights and situations is part of growing up. But throwing them into circumstances they aren’t prepared for and don’t have the skills to manage doesn’t help them develop courage and strength. As one of my teachers used to say, “You don’t help a plant grow by putting it in a dark closet and scaring it. It grows by being tended and protected.” Our children also need careful tending.
Mummy hand photo available from Shutterstock