It’s almost Halloween. Corn stalks, jack o’ lanterns, and witches hats adorn shop windows and every corridor of the local grocery. Pumpkins spill out of carts at local farm stands, often with a few carved with toothy grins. Front porches and lawns sport scarecrows, spider webs, and a skeleton or two. Some communities hold rag-tag parades where costumed kids take to the street or local mall for Halloween fun. Classrooms may no longer have parties with cupcakes and candy as they did in the parents’ generation, but many still do recognize the season in some way. It’s exciting. It’s fun!
And yet. There are children for whom Halloween is fraught with anxiety. Anxious or emotionally sensitive children and children on the autism spectrum can get stressed and distressed by the season. Such children don’t like the unfamiliar. Things that go bump in the night are terrifying, not exciting. They may be afraid of the skeleton hanging from the neighbor’s porch. Grinning pumpkins might give them nightmares. Masks can be terrifying. Treats may be regarded with suspicion. And costumes? For some children, dressing up is way out of their comfort zone.
If you are a parent of such a child, this isn’t new information. Nor is it new information that your child needs help to manage whatever is novel. But it is only human to minimize or forget at times, especially if we love Halloween ourselves; especially if the sensitive child has siblings who are excited and delighted with the whole scary thing.
Here are some friendly reminders of ways to make Halloween manageable for kids who wish they could skip right over October:
Talk with your child. Be empathetic about their fears. They are certainly not alone if they find it scary to think about spirits of the dead coming for a visit. Many cultures celebrate a holiday that is much like American Halloween. They honor or appease the dead with special activities and foods. Older children might enjoy learning about Dia de Los Muertos (All Souls Day) in Mexico, Latin America and Spain; Guy Fawkes Day in England; The Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong; or All Saints’ Day in Italy, as only a few examples. There are many good children’s books to help you.
Decorate together. You can detox frightening Halloween decorations by creating them together. Take the child’s lead when carving a pumpkin. Don’t be surprised if they want to make a friendly one. Make pictures together for the front door.
One 5-year-old boy I know made a big picture of a beaver. I asked him why. “It’s the scariest thing I can think of,” he said. When I asked how to make it less scary, he said he could make it smile. So he did.
Practice: Practice may not make perfect, but it does make things familiar. Role-play the usual doorway ritual with your child: Knock on your own door together and say “Trick or Treat.” Pretend you are getting a treat. Say, “thank you.” Then switch roles and have them practice handing out a piece of candy and admiring a costume.
Costumes: If your child is uncomfortable with unfamiliar clothes or costumes, modify a favorite shirt or jacket. One of my daughters couldn’t stand clothes she considered too scratchy. Tags in a shirt could cause a meltdown. For her first time trick or treating at age 3, we pinned a tail made of a stuffed sock on the back of her favorite jacket and glued paper ears to a headband. Voila! She was a cat. She loved it.
Go along: Give the anxious child an honorable way to accept adult supervision by stating safety concerns. In many places, it is only a sad truth that it is no longer wise for kids to be out alone at night. The solution in many communities is for parents and kids to travel in groups of three or four families. Parents stay out on the sidewalk chatting while the kids go to doors. If a child gets upset, that family just peels off to go home.
Consider alternatives: If you know your child will be overwhelmed by going out at night, attend a community sponsored party or event instead. If your child gets upset, you can easily leave.
If darkness isn’t the issue but unfamiliar people are, go only to the homes of people your child knows. Little kids don’t need to cover the whole neighborhood. They may be ready to go home after only a few stops.
Manners: It’s likely your child will get treats they don’t like. Explain that it’s polite to accept them and say “thank you” anyway. One of my kids was terribly confused by this when he was 5. “But saying thank you when I don’t want something isn’t honest,” he protested. So we had to have a talk about the difference between lying and saying a little white lie to make someone else feel good. Social skills don’t always make perfect sense.
It’s almost impossible to shield sensitive children from Halloween; especially when so many adults embrace the holiday. (179 million Americans take part in Halloween parties and are projected to spend $9 billion on costumes, candy, and decorations.) As a culture, Americans see trick or treating as the birthright of every child. But one of the truisms of parenting is that what everyone else seems to be doing may not be what our own child needs or even wants. With some mindfulness, we can make Halloween a positive holiday for even our most sensitive child.