This morning on the Today show I spoke with Al Roker about one of my family’s favorite holiday–Halloween. Halloween always has been at the top of most kids’ “fun holidays.” And why not? Playing dress up, asking for candy and getting it, staying out a bit late and carving pumpkins–it’s all the stuff kids love. But there’s also the scarier side of October 31 that can take the fun out of that big night and provoke anxiety, especially for little ones.
Fears are a normal part of child development, but some kids are a lot more fearful and anxious than others. Halloween sure can bring out the “fear factor” in younger children because of their stage of cognitive development. Younger kids can’t yet distinguish between make-believe and reality, so their active imaginations help fuel fears. Everything about Halloween–from eerie eyeballs, sticky hanging cobwebs, to ghosts, goblins and things that go bump into the night–play right into their imaginations. It isn’t until around the beginning of school-age when kids start realizing they can handle their fears by working through them, or by using coping strategies Mom and Dad may have taught them.
Fears are a certainly a normal part of childhood, but there are a few mistakes parents can make that can exacerbate the fear. Here are four things to avoid while trick-or-treating (or any other time your child shows a bit of anxiety).
Mistake 1: Trying to use logic to talk the child out of the fear. As trivial or unfounded as a child’s worry may seem, the fear feels real to your child and it’s causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid. Lecturing, ignoring or trying to use logic with your child will not help.
Mistake 2: Belittling the fear. Telling your child “Don’t be silly! There are no ghosts under your bed!” won’t make the fear go away. Be clear that you, too, accept even an unrealistic fear producer as real, but you do not believe it will really hurt you.
Mistake 3: Pushing the fear too fast. Pushing the child into the fear (insisting he go into that haunted house or putting his hand into that jar with the eerie eyeballs) can increase the fear factor as well as breakdown your child’s trust with you. If you know that Mr. Jones is going to jump out of the bushes and scare the bejeepers out of the kids, then best to avoid that house altogether.
Mistake 4: Overprotecting. Studies find that kids whose parents try to shield them from stressful events wind up more fearful. Protecting too much in childhood produces adults with unusually high portions of panic attacks.[i] So don’t be so quick to protect your child from scary Halloween. You may do more harm than good.
There are a number of proven ways that parents can help reduce fears and help their children cope. The trick is to find the fear reducer that works best for your child’s age and temperament. Here are seven ways parents can help reduce their child’s fears:
1. Rehearse how to respond. Young kids learn best through doing, so think of a few scary Halloween elements that could frighten your child (those eerie sounds, kids unexpectedly yelling, “Trick or treat!”) Then act them out with your child so he can practice how to respond. Once kids know what to expect, their fears are often reduced.
2. Emphasize “fun” not “scary.” Downplay the scary, chilling, creepy, parts of Halloween. Talk up the fun, like dressing up, acting up, seeing silly costumes. Stress Casper the Friendly Ghost, the “silly” old jack-o’-lantern, the poor, lonely old witch. The simple shift gives a child a whole different mindset and helps him envision the character more positively.
3. Empower the child. When kids feel they have control over a situation, they are less likely to be upset. Hand her a flashlight so she can see the way. Ask her to pick which houses to go to. Teach her to say a line inside her head when she feels scared, “It’s okay. It’s just pretend.”
4. Help your child know what to expect. Young children’s active imaginations make them imagine the worst, and that boosts their fears. If he has never walked in the street at night, do a practice-run the night before without those scary costumes. Have Daddy put on his funny clown costume a day ahead so your child can get used to that weird nose, or let him listen to that scary Halloween soundtrack tomorrow.
5. Introduce the fear slowly. Psychologists use the technique of conditioning to help patients work their way through a fear by giving small increments of the fear factor at a level they can handle. If the child is afraid of the dark, start trick-or-treating when it is light and nighttime slowly comes in. If she’s afraid of that ghost costume, let her play with it herself or dress up her teddy bear in it, or make a small ghost costume and gradually increase the size until your child can handle his fear.
6. Use the child’s magical thinking. Young children have the most vivid imaginations so capitalize on their fanciful thinking. If your child is afraid of monsters, then help her make an invisible potion of “monster-vanishing dust” and sprinkle it on the road. Turn the flashlight into a light saber that makes the road safe.
7. Respond to your child’s fear with “courageous calmness.” If your child is a bit frightened of that ghost–as most kids will be–the best way to respond to reduce the fear is by modeling courage and calmness. Your child is watching your response and using your behavior as a model to copy.
Remember, Halloween is about fun! You can always forgo the trick-or-treating to all the neighbors and just go to a few certain “safe” homes. You can always have your own private party at home. You can always go trick-or-treating during the afternoon or to the mall. After all, there’s always next year!