Halloween Can Spook Young Children

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

Witches, ghouls, and black cats prowl through the night looking for the next house to enter. There are people screaming and others running around the streets with bags in their hands containing their ill-gotten gains. All around are masked people and nothing looks familiar as the night begins to descend leaving only the glow of street lights.

This description of Halloween can be quite frightening for the uninitiated, particularly preschoolers. It is quite common for preschoolers to develop very powerful fears. These fears range from a fear of monsters to fear of the dark to fear of animals. It is not hard to see from that list of fears that Halloween appears to be perfectly concocted to be a preschoolers’ living nightmare.

Yet, preschoolers often want to participate in Halloween. They are at a unique crossroad in their development. They are beginning to understand that Halloween is a holiday associated with several traditions like dressing up in costumes, playing pranks on friends, and getting candy from neighbors.

However, many of those traditions can be difficult for preschoolers to fully comprehend. At this stage of development, preschoolers are quite dependent on the physical appearance of things. They also still have a vivid imagination which can make it difficult for them to tell the difference between what is real and what is pretend. This why young children can change to being very frightened by people in costume when they didn’t seem to mind just months earlier.

Imagine the world as a preschooler might perceive it. Familiar children morph into skeletons while others turn into devils. Even parents transform into hideous monsters. It is only reasonable that preschoolers respond with fear. The good news is that as children get older, they will start to grow out of these fears.

In the meantime there are several ways parents can respond to their preschooler’s fears and still be able to enjoy Halloween. One response is to listen to the child’s fears and take them seriously. Even if adults might not perceive that there is anything to be scared of, it was enough to scare their child. While listening to the child, parents need to model calmness and reassure her that they will keep her safe.

Once the child has described her fears about what might happen, parents can encourage her to learn ways to gain control over her fear. This can include taking deep breaths or keeping a flashlight by the bed.

Another response of parents to a preschooler’s fears is to engage in pretend play. Parents can set out a few carefully selected props and allow the child to play out her fears. It is important to let the child choose the play for herself so she can feel in control. At that age, play can serve children as a way to safely rehearse ways to confront fear and other feelings.

A final response is to find books about how children confront their fears. Parents can spend some time before Halloween reading those books and discussing how the characters overcame their fears with their children. There are several fine children’s books available at the library that address just these types of fears.

Halloween is a fun holiday but one that can be quite scary for preschoolers. Realize that fear is very typical at this age. Anticipate the fear and use several of the possible parent responses mentioned to prevent the fears from undermining the fun of the holiday.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on October 26, 2014.

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