As adults, we think of Halloween as the pinnacle of childhood fun: costumes, candy, parades, permission to act silly — what’s not to love?
Yes, it can be exciting to be a child in the fall. But it can also be a little unsettling or even downright scary for some children, especially little ones under age 5.
The things grown-ups and older children take for granted, such as spooky costumes and decorations just being pretend, aren’t always understood by toddlers and preschoolers. It’s confusing to see people you know dressed up as something you don’t recognize, and why did the neighbors put all those skeletons in their yard?
“At this time of year, children are more likely to be exposed to dark or scary images, and even things we might not consider so dark, such as a carved pumpkin, can be frightening for some,” says Dr. Lauren Starnes, vice president of early childhood education, research and development for Primrose Schools®. “We take an inanimate object, and now it has a face. That can trigger some fear: Does it talk? Can it see me?
Whether your child is sensitive to spooky stuff or not, parents can take simple steps to make this season more fun for everyone in the family.
Put your child in the dress-up driver’s seat.
If your child is trick-or-treating or attending a dress-up event, such as a costume parade, be sure to choose a costume they can relate to, Starnes says. This is often an animal or a favorite book character.
“When possible, let the child help make the decision or even help make the costume,” Starnes says.
In the days and weeks leading up to the dress-up event, let the child play with the costume and try it on. This extends the imaginative fun and can alleviate any discomfort they might feel in an unfamiliar costume.
Talk about real versus make-believe and encourage their imagination.
Explain to your child that Halloween is a dress-up day and that people are going to be dressed up as different characters. Emphasize that they are still the same people under those costumes:
You’re wearing a bumblebee costume. You’re still Michael, but you’re going to pretend to be a bumblebee.
Imaginative play, or make-believe, can lead to creative thinking, Starnes says, which you can encourage:
Look, there’s Gavin, and he’s pretending to be Clifford the Big Red Dog. If Gavin is Clifford, should we say “hi” or should we bark?
This type of conversation “helps children create age-appropriate boundaries between reality and fantasy while still encouraging higher-level creative thinking,” Starnes says.
You can use the costume to build a story with your child: What would your character do? What would they say? Where would they go?
Answer questions honestly and in an age-appropriate way.
At this time of year, it’s common for young children to see images that might be too mature for them, whether it’s a haunted house commercial or a storefront festooned with coffins and gravestones.
Again, it’s helpful to emphasize to children that these images and items are not real, Starnes says.
“It’s really important we explain it and also qualify it,” she says. “We don’t want to diminish the fear, because it’s real, but we do want to put the fear into context with other things that are less fearful.”
You don’t have to go into detail about what Halloween images are trying to depict, Starnes says; you can simply say, “Those are decorations, because sometimes people think it’s fun to be a little scared. But they are just pretend — see, it’s plastic.”
Take commonsense measures to keep festivities safe and fun.
There’s no reason why parties or dress-up events can’t take place during the day, when they’re sure to be less spooky and also safer when it comes to visibility and traffic. Skip face-obscuring masks both so children can see clearly and to prevent fearful interactions between friends who might not recognize each other, Starnes says.
Let your child take the lead with how much they want to participate. They might love trick-or-treating and want to ring every doorbell in the neighborhood. They may just want to walk down the street without approaching any houses. Or they might trick-or-treat only at Grandma’s, and that’s OK, too. The key is that they enjoy the fun and fantasy, without the fright.
For more on celebrating fall with your family, check out:
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