Fall is here and it will soon be time to dress up and get candy. I hear children ask each other all year long, “What are you going to be for Halloween?” It can be an exciting and fun event, but it can also be scary and overwhelming. Like many things, Halloween may be more fun in the abstract than in reality.
Different children respond differently to scary situations. Some seek out frightening scenarios and some children avoid them. Our job as parents and caregivers is to know our children well and to help them manage their fear in small doses. Children need warm and attentive adults to support them as they learn to cope with things that make them anxious.
The younger the child, the more likely they will be to confuse reality and pretend play. Young children are not very good at understanding transformation. For instance, a preschool-age child may watch you make a ball of play dough into a snake, and if you ask her whether there was more play dough in the ball or in the snake, she may reply that the ball had more because it looked bigger. Even though she watched the transformation take place, she is relying on the evidence of the moment.
An older sibling wearing a mask can say to his younger brother, “Look, it’s just me wearing a mask” but the younger child still responds to the mask as if it’s an entirely different person. To him, it is.
On the other hand, some children love dressing up. Pretending to be something or someone else can be helpful to a child’s emotional development. Acting out fears that are just a little bit scary can help children feel powerful and allow them to gain some control in a scary world. Bringing frightening concepts down to a child’s size is a way to manage those feelings of fear. Pretend play is how young children make sense of their world. If children can pretend in their own way, Halloween can be great fun.
Adults may remember fondly their own childhood experiences of Halloween and want to recreate that experience for their children. It’s exciting to be out in the dark with family and friends, to pretend you are someone else. Chances are, what adults remember are the fun times when they were a bit older, 7 or 8 or more. Slightly more mature brains understand the difference between pretend and real and it can be fun to be a little bit scared. Younger children do not always have the capacity to understand that what is in front of their eyes is a representation, not the real thing. It’s not a matter of being smart or not. A 3- or 4-year-old’s brain has only had that many years to grow and make sense of the world.
So how can we help children with their fears, especially around Halloween?
One way to do this is to ask children what is scary to them and listen to their fears without being dismissive. Saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s just pretend,” does not convince the child not to be afraid. Read some books about Halloween and listen to what your child has to say. It would be more helpful to say, “That is a creepy looking monster. What should we do? Should we tell it to go away? Or skip that page?” The important thing for the child’s emotional development is to be able to share that feeling with an adult who understands.
Let your child participate in the planning of the outfit and activities. Have them help you make or pick out their costume. Avoid frightening masks for the child and other family members. Talk about what houses you will go to and what will happen when you get there. If the child decides at the last moment that they don’t want to wear the costume, avoid forcing the issue. Even if you have spent two months making the best costume imaginable, if they don’t want to wear it, let them make that decision.
Make Halloween a good experience and one that will create fond memories for your child by listening to them. They deserve their own holiday.
Jane Wagner recently retired from a career as an early childhood special educator.