For some children, Halloween is the most enjoyable night of the year. For others, whether toddlers or older children, the holiday creates fear not fun, and its sights and sounds can stir feelings of anxiety and apprehension.
One study has found that most parents underestimate how frightening the holiday can be for children.
A study in 2005 of 6- and 7-year-olds in Philadelphia by Cindy Dell Clark, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University found that some children are unwilling participants in Halloween rituals and that the key driver of fear is the holiday’s focus on death. For youngsters who haven’t yet been exposed to funerals, Halloween may be their introduction.
Some children may just not be ready to deal with the subject, Dell Clark noted. Writing in the anthropological journal Ethos, she said that, “We typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones.”
According to cultural anthropologists, Halloween also involves many “inversion” rituals, which means that things literally get turned upside down, which can be unsettling for children. Suddenly it’s “OK” for kids to eat lots of sweets and randomly ring neighbors’ doorbells.
How to deal with a child’s fears and confusion at Halloween? Mental health experts say that communication is pivotal. Acknowledging a child’s concerns can immediately help to reassure the child, making him or her feel more at ease. Here are some other tips to help bring out the fun, not fear, in Halloween:
- Books with fun illustrations are a great way to introduce customs such as trick-or-treating and dressing in costume. Read the books at bedtime before Halloween and let the kids talk about what they fear – whether it’s skeletons in a neighbor’s trees or a monster lurking under the bed.
- Help kids cope with bad dreams. Halloween can produce nightmares in sensitive children. According to the National Sleep Foundation, perhaps the No. 1 way to help is to keep kids away from scary movies, television shows and videos during the Halloween season. Also, talk about positive ways to respond to the dream, such as by “being brave” and thinking happy thoughts. You could try making a “scary” bedroom fun by having a treasure hunt. Keeping a pet nearby at night is reassuring for some kids, even a bedside fish tank can do the trick.
- Let kids decide for themselves how much they will participate in Halloween to help give them a sense of control.
- Make Halloween costumes more low-key, without scary character masks.
- Have a party for a small group of friends instead of trick-or-treating at the homes of strangers.
- Be creative. If your child quakes at the thought of disembodied spirits and blood-sucking vampires, use your imagination to create friendly ghosts and funny monsters instead. Invent stories about hero monsters that watch over children and send all the mean monsters packing.
- Use this time of year to you and your child’s advantage. For example, get your shy child involved with a sport that will build social connections and self-esteem. Team sports are great for tackling timidity. Also consider sports where shy kids will have the opportunity to shine as individuals, such as swimming and gymnastics
Most children eventually overcome their Halloween fears and learn to enjoy things orange and black. If your child’s fears persist, however, and extend to other areas of his or her life, talk with a counselor. You may be dealing with social anxiety disorder or phobias, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.