For many of us, Halloween is a really fun event, bringing back memories of dressing up, trick-or-treating, and gorging on candy (okay, some of us don’t need Halloween for this activity). So, we are naturally excited to share this experience with the children in our lives (and eat their candy while they are sleeping).
However, many children experience a lot of stress and anxiety around Halloween, which makes perfect sense considering that another name for October 31 is “Fright Night.” The following guide was originally intended for helping children with social anxiety, generalized anxiety, or sensory issues to be able to participate in and enjoy Halloween. But, as I edit this blog, I’m realizing that much of it applies to young children in general.
1) Plan and Practice. If you have a child who is a “first timer” or who struggles with talking to strangers, dealing with scary images, chaotic events, changed routines, or discomfort with costumes, you may want to talk with him/her about what aspects of Halloween are going to be challenging and how you can plan for it. Knowing exactly what to expect goes a long way in reducing anxiety for kids (this is true, in general). Encourage the child to practice wearing his/her costume and saying, “trick or treat,” if [s]he is willing to do so. If the child is resistant, don’t force the issue. Many parents/caregivers challenge their kids to “be brave” and do what scares them. Keep in mind, however, that Halloween can be an overwhelming day for everyone, so exposure therapy might not be the best strategy.
2) Make a Spin Kit. Having an anxiety management toolbox (we call this a Spin Kit) can be a lifesaver on Halloween. Help your child brainstorm about what might be helpful to carry with her/him during the festivities. Some ideas include Bach’s Rescue Remedy, earplugs to cancel some of the noise, a flashlight to help him/her feel less scared in the dark, chewing gum, and even a favorite toy or stuffed animal incorporated into the costume. If your child has a particular security blanket or towel, cut a small piece to take along. Creating the Spin Kit can be a really fun activity to do together but try to allow your child to pick the specific items. This will give him/her a sense of control and the ability to soothe him/herself.
3) Have a Secret Word. Come up with a secret word or signal with your child so that [s]he can tell you when [s]he has had enough. This is particularly useful if you are with a group of kids and their parents. One of my children used to rub his knee when he wanted to tell me that he was ready for a playdate to end or to leave a party.
4) Choose the Right Costume. Particularly when a child has sensory issues, the feeling of a strange costume can be very anxiety-provoking—even if it looked or seemed fun to wear in the store. If your child is distraught, allow her/him to wear whatever makes her/him comfortable. Everyday clothing with a prop (such as a light saber, basketball, wand, etc.) works just fine for Halloween. Try not to let your desire for a great photo lead to a total meltdown!
5) Bring the Dog. If you have a friendly dog (or other pet willing to go trick-or-treating), it may be very comforting for your child if he/she comes along. At scary moments, petting the pup can really help calm your child down.
6) Be Flexible. Celebrate Halloween in a way that makes it fun for your child. Not everyone enjoys dressing up and trick-or-treating. Maybe your child would prefer to pick and carve pumpkins instead. Playing board games while enjoying some Halloween candy is another great option. If your child has some social anxiety, perhaps she/he has a friend she/he would like to invite over for a crafts activity or movie and pizza. Halloween can be a really fun indoor event!
7) Be Patient. Young and/or anxious children may not be ready to engage too much with this holiday. Here’s the thing to remember: under the age of 5, most children cannot fully distinguish reality from fantasy. In fact, many children are 7 or 8 before they can really tell the difference between what is real and what is not. You may be very reassuring, but you are also denying what your child sees if you tell him/her “it isn’t real.” A costumed teenager towering over him is a real threat to the child, and a fear response is both natural and appropriate. As excited as we are to do “Boo at the Zoo” or haunted houses, don’t push your children when they express fear. Just be patient—in a few years, they will be the ones wearing the same masks that terrified them!