Is Halloween too scary for your young child?

October has arrived and the ghouls and goblins will soon be here to play! It’s easy for adults to get swept up in traditional festivities and overlook some of the challenges that Halloween activities can pose for children, especially for those ages birth to 5.

“Young children have an emerging capacity to distinguish what is real and what’s not,” said Dr. Alison Steier, director of Mental Health Services and the Harris Institute at Southwest Human Development. “Halloween is a time of year when parents need to be particularly sensitive to children who are learning about the element of darkness that surrounds the holiday.”

Adults have an ultimate sense that they can protect themselves and that the haunting sounds and decorations are meant in the spirit of fun. Meanwhile, young children may not have yet developed the frame of reference that allows them to be in the experience but also to be apart from it enough to know that they are not in danger.

“Sorting out what’s thrilling but not actually a danger is part of development and doesn’t mean that a child is not a spirited or fun kid, or that it represents a deficit in that child,” Steier said. “It represents a stage of development, so sensitivity and empathy are very important.”

Practicing sensitivity with young children doesn’t need to be in in competition with the fun that Halloween is for adults. There are plenty of tactics to help your child feel more at ease with Halloween and enjoy the season.

Avoid dismissive comments such as, “Oh, that’s not scary.” Alternatively, Steier recommends communicating statements of reassurance like “that little boy put on that scary mask because he thought it would be a funny joke, and it’s not funny to you I can see that.” Authentic reassurance sends a message that the child has the freedom to feel and work their way through understanding Halloween festivities and can count on you for help.

Prepare ahead of time to put your child at ease. Having children put their costumes on and off a couple of weeks before the holiday starts to make the elements surrounding Halloween more understandable. The action communicates that costumes are pretend and that the holiday is meant to be fun. Explaining to a child that other children’s parents are also helping them try on costumes will reinforce that notion as well.

Use knowledge of your child’s temperament to your advantage. Some children are capable of working through manageable anxiety alongside a trusting relationship with their caregiver, others may need more time to adjust. Some parents may accept that waiting until next year to fully participate in Halloween activities is more sensitive to their child.

Be sensitive of recent traumatic events. If a child has recently experienced a death of a pet or grandparent, walking around neighborhoods that have gravestones may not be ideal for that child. It could take an experience that a parent might otherwise be able to co-manage with a child into a realm that’s quite overwhelming.

Celebrate Halloween with your child, and have fun! There’s a number of spirited activities to do with young children that will ensure you have a spooktacular  and fun October such as filling the candy bowl together, arranging a playdate with other young children in costumes, baking Halloween cookies, painting pumpkins and so much more!

If you have questions about Halloween and your young children, parents, caregivers and professionals can call the Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) for free child development support.

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care.  Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article.  You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance.  Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.