Beware of Halloween

Betsy Brown Braun
October 20, 2017

One of the joys of being a parent is getting to do the fun kid stuff all over again. Stuff like sharing Easter baskets, making valentines, and dressing up for Halloween. You can hardly wait to dress up your nine-month-old in that lion costume and parade her around the neighborhood, right?

But you aren't remembering Halloween from the perspective of a two or three or four year old. You remember it from when you were nine or ten years old, when it really was all fun and there wasn't much that was scary to you. The bloodier and yuckier, the better. It was a holiday filled with abandon and doing all the things that a kid's not supposed to do: Go out at night; knock on strangers' doors; beg for candy...and eat candy...lots of it! What's bad?!

Halloween can be really scary for young children-the twos and threes and even some fours. In a parent's excitement about her child getting to experience the holiday, she forgets to consider the child. It was so much fun for you, of course it will be fun for him.

Maybe not.

While preschoolers love to dress up-it doesn't get much better than throwing on a cape or clomping around in your mommy's heels- they are just getting a handle on the difference between what is make believe and what is real. And for young toddlers in particular, the line is clear:  "it's real and I am scared!"  Halloween brings lots of challenges to the child's growing awareness of what is pretend.

Think about all the parts of Halloween that really scare young children

  • The 11-year-old in the bloody mask standing on your porch when your three-year-old answers the door.
  • The big kids he meets on the street who are wearing scary costumes with yucky masks with gnarly teeth and knives coming out of their heads.
  • The haunted houses, complete with spooky figures, recordings of screeching witches, and flying things that pop out and startle you.
  • The adults and teens dressed in costumes (still stuck in their youth) who take pleasure in answering the door and scaring the little trick-or-treators.

...just to name a few.

Here are some suggestions for making Halloween more fun than fear.

  • Very young children do not "need" to participate in Halloween beyond pumpkins and decorations and seeing the kids and coming to the door. (Beware of what lurks behind it, however.) Whose needs are being met, yours or his?
  • Take your child's fears seriously.
  • Answer the front door carefully, prescreening what is there on the other side. Interpret what you young child will see. "Oh look, there is a boy wearing a mask with strange looking eyes. Do you want to take a peek?"
  • Young children often do not like anything covering their own faces. And you don't need to overdo it. A costume can be an extra large tee shirt!
  • Halloween lasts longer than one night because the best part of Halloween the costume. It is the holiday that keeps on giving, as your child will wear his costume for days before the holiday and for weeks after.
  • If trick-or-treating is on your agenda, go with only one or two friends (an even number is best). Large groups on special occasions can make it even more overwhelming.
  • A half hour is plenty of time out. Be done before the evening falls apart.
  • Make it an early event. Young children are not accustomed to being out at night, especially when there are spooky things going on.
  • If candy is part of the event, have a plan for it and discuss it in advance (e.g. you may pick one for each hand to eat tonight; you may save five pieces, etc...) The older the child, the harder it will be for him to part with his booty! Some people use the "Switch Witch" who brings a gift in exchange for the candy. Some simply buy-out their kids- pennies, nickels, or dimes for each piece exchanged. Others send the candy to Mommy or Daddy's office to share with the grown-ups who like candy but don't get to trick-or-treat.
  • If at all possible, send your child out on a full stomach to avoid the "walk and snack." (Often the excitement of the night takes an appetite away, however.)
  • Beware of the food dyes in the brightly colored candies. There are those who believe that the synthetic food dyes are the most likely suspects when it comes to triggering behavior issues in some children...and not the sugar.
  • Consider "planting" the treat your child will get at the houses you will visit. If you don't want your young child to have candy (and you can get away with it), you can plant small trinkets that cannot be swallowed or other such non candy things.

Just because you loved Halloween doesn't mean your young child will...right now, anyway. He will have lots of years to celebrate. Let him grow into the holiday as his awareness of all that it is unfolds with age.

Happy Halloween, I hope.

Originally published in October 2009.

Betsy Brown Braun is the best-selling author of the award-winning books You're Not the Boss of Me and Just Tell Me What to Say. Betsy is also a child development specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant, and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc.

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