Halloween is just around the corner. By now, most children have deeply contemplated their costumes. During a conversation with three-year-old Joseph, he informed me that he decided to be Captain America for Halloween. He thought this was a good choice because Captain America can fight and kill the bad guys, a.k.a. the ghosts, zombies, and monsters Joseph will come across while trick-or-treating. I wasn’t at all surprised by his response. We have had this conversation several times before. Except, last time we talked about this, he was planning on being one of the bad guys — a pirate. His indecision isn’t at all unusual for a boy his age. He is learning about good and bad and working on figuring out how to choose between the two. It is often common for young ones to wish for a scary costume so that they can be the ones doing the scaring and not feel so scared as they have in years past. Joseph’s seven-year- old sister joined in the conversation and informed us that come Halloween, she would be a gothic princess. Naturally, her brother was confused by her response, since he doesn’t know what gothic means, but he was aware enough to know that he might be afraid. He replied, “But you will be you the next day, right?” Children of his age are also still learning the difference between reality and fantasy. He won’t master this for a few more years, when he will be able to be more certain of what is real and what is made-up, fake, or just a costume for Halloween. He wanted to be certain that his sister was not permanently changing into a gothic princess.
At times, amidst the excitement older children and adults feel as Halloween approaches, it is easy to forget that little ones may have questions, hesitations, and fears about the approaching activities and events. Their closest friends and family suddenly become unrecognizable and it may be difficult for them to understand that the costumes only mask familiar faces. Familiar houses become eerie graveyards and homes to witches, ghosts, zombies, and vampires, all of which little ones may have difficulty understanding as make-believe. Your local Walgreens, which they have been to so many times, is now full of scary Freddy Krueger masks. This may terrify your young ones and be very confusing as they’re wondering why no one else seems to be noticing all of these scary, out-of-the-ordinary things. Why is everyone else acting like nothing has changed?
As children grow and become school-aged, Halloween feels very different. The Halloween memories of these years are the ones most of us grownups cherish. Kids look excitedly to spending time with their friends and competing for who can collect the most candy. They have learned to master their fears and look forward to the playful spooking and tricking. Their feelings of independence grow as they reach that first Halloween when they can trick-or-treat without mom and dad. They feel big and strong and autonomous. If their preschool Halloween experiences go well, this time can be full of fun and excitement — while still feeling safe
A few tips to help little ones have a fun time on Halloween:
Remember that young children under six may be frightened by objects, people, and sounds that older children and adults find amusing. You can ensure that young children have a fun time by going to familiar neighborhood homes during daylight hours.
If your little one is home with you while you are answering the door for trick-or-treaters, some scary costumes will show up. Keep reminding your child that it is just a nice child from the neighborhood wearing a costume. If you can see a very scary one coming up the driveway, consider not letting your toddler answer the door that time. Helping to make them feel safe is the most important piece.
Allow children of all ages to determine for themselves the extent to which they’d like to be involved in celebrations, while also remaining watchful and exercising parental discretion when things might get out of hand. Head home for some hot apple cider when it becomes apparent that your little one has had enough celebrating. It is okay to set boundaries regarding costume choices for young children. It will be fun for them to dress up as their favorite superhero or cartoon character. Save the gore and blood for the older children who can have more fun with it.
Young children who are trying hard to learn about rules and self-restraint may feel perplexed when allowed to fill up a bag with candy. Talking together about what would be good limits for eating the goodies can help avoid conflicts. Sharing the bounty may help a child who is trying to not be too greedy.
If young children express nervousness or hesitation about something they see, help them know that it is not real. But remember that this will be hard for them to understand, so it is okay to head home early if your little one becomes too frightened to continue. There’s always next year!
Schedule a playdate with familiar friends and arrange fun activities, minus the gore and masks. Local family organizations and schools often have Halloween events planned. Consider taking younger children to one of these events for age-appropriate fun! Don’t hesitate to call ahead and get a sense of the level of scariness.
Children handle new experiences best when they have time to prepare for them, along with an opportunity to ask questions. Let your child know that he or she may see new things and can tell you if it is scary. Try to avoid loud, eerie music, strobe lights, and startling young children on Halloween. Most children will not find these amusing. They will love pumpkin carving, apple bobbing, and of course, eating candy and other special treats!
Denia Barrett, LCSW
Dr. Colleen Napleton
Dr. Danielle Principato