The sights and sounds of Halloween throughout the month of October are inescapable. Porches display jack-o-lanterns and lawns are decorated with popular Halloween images such as cobwebs, black cats, and witches on broomsticks. Decorations these days have grown to include more extravagant displays of the iconic spooks of Halloween that play music, move around, and talk and make sounds. Beyond the neighborhood, it’s difficult to find a store, restaurant, or other public venue that isn’t displaying some theme of Halloween. Put simply, just about everywhere a child looks in October there is bound to be something Halloween-related.
For many children, the spooky and sometimes gruesome imagery around this time of year is taken in stride alongside the excitement that accompanies donning costumes and trick-or-treating on Halloween night. For some children, especially children under the age of five, the popular images and themes of Halloween can be more frightening than exciting. Caught up in and surrounded by the excitement that accompanies this holiday, children do not always know how to express their worries or seek help when they are uncomfortable.
Understanding development: a child’s emerging ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality
For the very young child, the boundaries between what is real and what is pretend are fuzzy. Wishes come true, Santa brings gifts, and the Tooth Fairy magically knows when a tooth has come out. The mind’s ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not emerges over time, and in development this process is often not a linear one. Think, for example, of the otherwise logical and rational child who wouldn’t dare dangle his foot over the edge of the bed at night or who only falls asleep with the light on.
With this in mind, we can now begin to see Halloween from the perspective of a young child. Halloween is a time when monsters that usually only lurk under the bed around bedtime are out in the open, walking around, talking, and sometimes even jumping out in a surprising (and terrifying) way. With some thought and preparation, parents can help ensure that their night out and about is fun (and emotionally safe) for all:
- Young children who believe in magical ideas benefit from parents talking with them in an ongoing way about things that are pretend. For example: “That’s just a little boy in a costume.” “That’s Sally’s mommy. Her face is painted.” “Those are decorations. They can be turned on and off.”
- Keep the night short and predictable for young children and visit only familiar houses.
- Choose your young child’s costume carefully, with their age and emotional development in mind.
- Remember that a child’s expressions of worry about these themes can easily be confused with excitement (wild and silly behaviors). Such behaviors are signs that an experience has become too much for a child to handle comfortably and independently.
- We recommend that parents use the Lucy Daniels Center’s “90 Percent Rule” as a guideline to help decide if their child is ready to undertake a significant new challenge. The rule is simple: Present a challenge or experience to your child only if you are at least 90 percent sure that he or she will succeed.
For parents of more anxious children, preparation for Halloween begins long before Halloween night. Keep in mind that many public venues look and feel different to a child when they are decorated for Halloween. You can prepare your child by talking about what you may encounter. For example, “The grocery store is selling candy for Halloween, so they may have some scary decorations when we walk past that part of the store.” Talk ahead of time about whose houses you will be visiting and explain that the people answering the doors may look different, but that you know that they are the neighbors you know. With these thoughtful measures in place, you can help ensure that Halloween night is a fun and safe experience for the entire family.