Halloween is one of the most exciting (and, for kids, possibly spookiest) nights of the year. Parents and caregivers of younger children may have the difficult task of navigating their child’s celebration while protecting them from unnecessary levels of anxiety.
To a point, being momentarily scared is fun. Everyone has memories of laughter following a brief instance of being frightened.
However, anxiety is not fun. When people are truly afraid, they experience physical reactions, and their body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can initiate a flight, fight or freeze reaction. This response is automatic, built into the way our brain responds to perceived danger.
Halloween celebrations often include common things we’re afraid of: the dark, spiders, bats, snakes, shadowy images, blood. These are all associated with perceived danger, and our brain takes notice of these potential threats.
Finally, Halloween has a macabre element with its focus on the grim, deathly and ghostly. Some of the decorations, costumes and themes are too horrifying for young children to enjoy or even be exposed to. Parents must act responsibly to protect little ones from scenes that are particularly graphic or gruesome in nature.
Spiders and spooks aside, Halloween can be a wonderfully fun and enjoyable holiday for even the youngest children. Follow these tips to help manage Halloween jitters and make the holiday and fun and memorable one kids will look forward to year after year.
Tips for Managing Your Child’s Halloween Fears
Express positive and realistic expectations.
“We’re going to have fun getting lots of candy tonight, but when we get home we’re only eating two small pieces so we don’t get a sick tummy.”
Decide ahead of time what rules you’d like to set.
Staying up late to watch a scary movie is probably out of the question for young children, but maybe you can let him or her enjoy a fun Halloween cartoon at bedtime.
Determine what level of scary is age appropriate for your child.
Grinning jack o’ lanterns, silly spiders and fuzzy black cats are just as kooky as they are spooky and can be a lot of fun for tots. Bloody weapons, graveyard ghouls and other-wordly creatures will surely terrify and distress children. Exposure to this type of Halloween imagery should be avoided completely.
Make sure you communicate your expectations for the night clearly to your child.
Don’t be afraid to say “no”, whether it’s to “just one more” piece of candy, staying up “just a little bit later” or watching “just a few minutes” of a horror movie on TV. (This season is actually the perfect time to talk to kids about moderation and healthier choices!)
Remember, parents are the ones who set the stage for fun AND moderation.
Discipline yourself to be in control and remain in control. If you’re dressing up in costume, don’t let yourself get too carried away in your new persona. And remember, you can’t help yourself to eight candy bars and expect your child to stop at just one or two!
Don’t try to eliminate anxiety; help your child identify it and manage it.
Use the bonds of love to help contain any anxiety a child might be experiencing. For example, kids love listening to spooky stories–it’s an opportunity to use their imagination in a safe setting. So, read an age appropriate spooky book together. This can help your child experience scary and exciting places in their mind, while your love and physical closeness keeps them safe. (However, it’s probably best to avoid scary stories just before bed. Try reading one right after dinner or during the daylight hours instead.)
Whether you read a story or make one up, use the holiday to help your child learn, “It’s OK to be scared, and I can choose to have fun being scared on Halloween.”
Respect feelings of fear, but don’t reinforce or empower them.
Validating your child’s feelings of fear doesn’t mean agreeing with them. When your child says they are scared about something, it can be tempting to respond with, “Oh, it’s not a big deal,” or “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine!” These responses send a message to your child that their feelings don’t matter or that they shouldn’t be scared.
Instead, listen to your child and be empathic, encouraging and supportive. Hold their hand or even pick them up if they need it. But be realistic – point out the make believe nature of what they are seeing or experiencing as they trick or treat. Costumes and decorations are designed to make us scared, but they’re also supposed to be fun.
Challenge distorted thinking.
Replace exaggerated and distorted thinking with calming, reassuring and positive self-talk. For example, don’t catastrophize being scared. Catastrophizing is when someone assumes that the worst will happen. Halloween is filled with many possible scary moments – but these are all make believe. They are meant to be fun. Help your child understand that none of the costumes or decorations or stories are disasters or threatening to us.
Brainstorm solutions for dealing with scary situations on Halloween.
Sometimes it helps to talk through what your child could do if something scary did happen – how could you and your child handle it together?
For example, if you see a mask that it is really scary while trick or treating – “I can look away, or tell myself that it is just a costume, it’s not real.” If there is a house on the route that has strobe lights, thunder, scary music and lots of creepy props, “I can tell myself that I don’t have to go to this house. I can skip it and get candy at the next house.”
Model healthy ways of coping with anxiety.
Don’t pretend that you don’t experience stress and anxiety yourself, but do let kids hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it and feeling good about getting through it.
One technique you can use is to teach them Belly Button Breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing, also sometimes called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a type of a breathing exercise that helps you breathe deeply. It triggers the body’s built in “off switch” and it has several benefits that affect your entire body. Focusing on breathing reduces stress levels and lowers blood pressure, and is the basis for almost all relaxation exercises.
Remember to have fun on Halloween!
Halloween is wonderful holiday where you can make lasting memories with your kids. Remember, it is kind of fun to be a little scared–at any age! Laughter is good medicine and a great way to offer reassurance and love.