How scary is too scary for children at Halloween?
Halloween. What’s not to love? The pitter patter of small feet running from door to door dressed in their creepy-yet-cute costumes to collect bucketloads of free sweets is just good old fashioned fun right?
For some kids, however, the ghosts, witches and blood can be more terrifying than many grown-ups might realise.
Recent research by parenting site ChannelMum.com revealed that two thirds of parents now claim some Halloween costumes are too frightening for young children, up from just 48% the previous year, while one in five parents fear Halloween is becoming more sinister every year and two in five (41%) claim costumes no longer have a traditional Halloween theme but are selected purely to terrify.
But ghoulish costumes, blood-curdling decorations, and ringing a stranger’s doorbell can be monster-sized challenges for little ones who can’t yet fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, advises psychologist Emma Kenny.
“The way we look at Halloween psychologically is a pleasure paradox,” she explains. “There’s enjoyment in fear but based on their empathy levels a child might be over-scared as opposed to just excitedly scared and the challenge for parents is to figure out what that balance is.”
As parents it is easy to let our expectations for Halloween temporarily override what might be best for our little ones. We want our kids to dress up, look cute, and make some trick or treating memories. For many kids this is exactly what will happen, but not all children will see Halloween as fun and it is important to be aware of how your child is feeling.
“While it’s important not to take the fun and spook factor out of Halloween, parents do need to use their judgement about what’s too scary for their child,” advises Juliet Blank from Netmums.
“Everyone’s child is different and some will find certain things more frightening than others. As parents (and as with most things) we need to find a balance between getting in the spirit of Halloween and doing what’s right for our kids.”
So how do you know if you’ve got a little Halloween-phobe on your hands?
“If you’ve got a kid that suffers horribly from night terrors or an over sensitive child, not allowing them the understanding is a very big pitful,” Emma Kenny advises.
“The worry is that if your child is genuinely scared it can manufacture real fear, which can also trigger almost phobic reactions where kids just don’t want to involve themselves because they become averse to it. And we want to avoid that at all costs.”
“It’s important that we show children fear, and that they get scared and they understand the fun in fear but what we don’t want is terror,” Emma continues “Because then you’ve got six months of them in your bed.”
But there are some things you can do to ensure you stay the right side of the scare/terror line…
While the kind of Halloween decorations children will be exposed to at pre-school will likely be on the tame side – smiley happy pumpkins for example, it can be tricky to avoid all deathly imagery that appears in our neighbours windows, in shopping centres and online at this time of year. And nor should you.
“When you’re shopping for Halloween treats and decorations in the supermarket, be sure to pick up the scary masks, fake teeth etc… and let your child see and touch them for themselves, so that they understand that it is just dressing-up,” explains Tina Knight, childcare expert and founder of the new kids play clothes www.kidunk.com.
Emma also suggests demystifying the dark side of Halloween. “Children might have learnt about Halloween at school so they might already have some misgivings about the rituals of its dark origins,” she says. “But if you make it more grounded in reality so make it more about going down to see Mr and Mrs so and so down the road and getting some free sweets and they’re associating dressing up just as they would as normal dress up then that helps.”
You could also desensitise really young children by doing a crafts project that portrays a scary character in a fun way, for example carving a happy pumpkin or making smiley ghosts out of tissue paper.
Let children make a call on trick or treating
You might see trick or treating as the ultimate Instagram opportunity, but if your child is genuinely frightened you might want to rethink.
“Some children are very socially anxious at that age and very worried about being near people they don’t know,” Emma explains. “So it’s important to listen to your child and not just drag them out because you think they look cute.”
For those children who are scared, Emma recommends listening to their acceptance level of what is right or wrong for them. “If they are saying they don’t want to go make sure you do something fun at home so make Halloween about apple bobbing in your lounge or doing a treasure hunt in your garden. Do something so they can engage in the celebration without fear.”
Choose age age-appropriate costumes
“Some will have this marked on, if not it’s for parents to decide,” advises Juliet Blank. “For younger or sensitive kids stick to ghosts, witches and pumpkins rather than scary clowns, blood-spattered serial killers or anything too adult like characters from the Exorcist. There are plenty of kids’ clothes with ‘boo’ or ghost prints on that are great for Halloween without being too scary for little ones.”
Tina Knight agrees. “When it comes to dressing-up, be led by your child about what they would like to do, they may prefer to just wear a themed t-shirt rather than immersing themselves in the whole experience with a full suit, mad hair, mask and fake blood!”
Ditto facepaint. “There are plenty of face paint ideas that capture the spirit of Halloween without being overly gory too,” Julie continues.
Prepare children mentally
“When going to an event or party, don’t just consider the age of your child, think about how they will cope emotionally and take this into account,” advises Tina Knight. “Is your child confident and outgoing or shy and needs support? Research and discussion is the key, what and who will be there, what will happen and when? Use positive language about how much fun they will have, and remind them that it’s not real.”
Put the focus on Harvest rather than Halloween.
If your child is clearly frightened, switch the focus off Halloween and talk about the harvest celebration instead. And talk about scarecrows and pumpkins, rather than ghosts and ghouls. Visit a local farm and encourage little ones to pick their own pumpkins.
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