When Halloween is More Tricks than Treats

Parenting insights and advice from Rebecca Walsh, director of Early Childhood Matters

“My three-year-old is very frightened by Halloween decorations. From the giant spiders and bats on the walls of the grocery store to the truly spooky decorations in our neighbors’ windows, he seems to get scared every time we leave the house these days! How can I help him be less afraid, and make sure our family makes it through all our scheduled Halloween festivities in one piece?”

Rebecca says:
First off, it’s important to remember that, at this age, young children cannot separate fantasy from reality. Images that may seem benign or silly to us as adults (such as a fake flying bat or a plastic mummy) can be very frightening to a young child. While we may try to avoid exposing our children to scary images or media, it can be impossible to avoid during the Halloween season. The following tips can be helpful for taking some of the fear away:

1. Talk to your child about what is real and what is not. 

If they are afraid of a spooky bat decoration, you can tell them about bats in an objective, scientific manner. “This is a pretend bat. Real bats are animals who fly at night and sleep upside down.” Have your child make the whooshing sound that a bat’s wings might make. Encourage your child to touch the fake bat to reassure himself that it is not alive. Giving your child the opportunity to confront their fear in a supportive manner will empower him, and take some of the power away from his fear.

2. Help create positive associations with fearful things.

Visit the library to find books with friendly protagonists (for example, if your child is afraid of bats, check out the classic children’s book Stellaluna). If your child is frightened of vampires, The Count from Sesame Street can create a positive and humorous association. If the giant spider in the grocery store is causing your child some anxiety, try singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and then changing the words to “The Big Hairy Spider” in a silly voice.

3. If the daytime fears are manifesting themselves into nightmares, stay calm at night and simply remind your child that he is safe. 

Don’t ask for details about the dream unless he brings it up, then calmly and lovingly reassure him. The next morning, you might bring up the dream again. Help your child to process by talking about the dream using some of the strategies described above.

4. In planning Halloween activities, be mindful of events that might be too frightening for young children. 

Daytime activities tend to be more family-friendly and less anxiety-provoking for little ones than events after dark.

5. Talk through events with your child before they happen.

If your child will be trick-or-treating for the first time, explain the sequence of events in detail, several times if possible. You might want to prepare your child that there will likely be people wearing a range of costumes, some of which might be scarier than others. Continue to emphasize the difference between fantasy and reality.

6. Focus on the fun of getting to delve into the fantasy of wearing a costume and pretending to be something or someone different. 

Follow your child’s lead and keep things light and fun. And parents who love haunted houses and scary costumes, take heart: before you know it, your children will be older and able to engage in the holiday in a new way.

Good luck!