Halloween is a great time of fun for many children, they can dress up in fun costumes and collect lots of sweets. However for some children, Halloween is not the happy and fun time that it can be.
RTE’s Operation Transformation psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy gives his weekly advice on various topics to help people in their daily lives
Halloween has consistently changed from costumes involving silly smiling pumpkins, simple sheet ghosts, princesses, pirates, cowboys and funny witches towards more adult themes – evil demons, zombies, realistic gore and horrific, spooky decorations that scream and grab people as they walk by.
The Fear of Halloween
Children, especially young children, are easily scared by the more frightening adult decorations and costumes. They may or may not understand, even if they have been told, that these things are not real. Children’s fears around Halloween are real fears, not to be dismissed as silliness or immaturity.
The fear of Halloween is characterized by anxiety that increases as Halloween night approaches. In severe cases, anxiety begins as soon as Halloween items are available in shops. Children may refuse to leave the house, throw screaming tantrums when asked to go trick-or-treating (it was penny for the Pooka in my day!!) or cry upon the very mention of putting on a costume.
Many Existing Fears are Magnified During Halloween
Common childhood fears – such as a fear of spiders, fear of the dark, fear of strangers, fear of large crowds – are often magnified around and on Halloween night.
Fear of The Dark
Children that are afraid of the dark have a particularly hard time with Halloween. They are already afraid of being without daylight. The excitement of dressing up and going out to trick or treating is quickly lost once they realise it is actually dark outside. They may be reluctant to leave the house, insist on staying near parents, or throw a tantrum in order to avoid going door-to-door.
Parents spend a great deal of time teaching their children to be safe and never talk to strangers. Teachers and parents teach about stranger-danger. On Halloween night, children get the message that it is okay to go knock on a stranger’s door and ask for sweets. This can confuse children, particularly young children, which increases anxiety.
Additional Types of Halloween Phobias Common in Children
Halloween objects, items and symbols often cause Halloween fears in children. Children may be afraid of Halloween masks, whether it is a scary monster mask - it is the not seeing the person’s face that is scary.
Top Tips For Dealing with Childhood Halloween Fears
1. Ask why and listen
Halloween presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about fear in a controlled environment. Opening up a conversation with your child and listening without judgment can go a long way in reducing fears.
2. Validate feelings. Never tell a child there is nothing to be afraid of. It is important to accept any and all of their fears as real for them. Validating a child’s worries, doubts and fears is the first step towards normalizing them. You can also try sharing stories of your childhood fears but focus on how you conquered them
3. Separate fear from danger. It is important to help young children determine the difference between fear and danger. There are many things in this world we may fear that will never hurt us but actually help us. And there are those things, such as fire, that we need to fear for our own safety because it is dangerous and will hurt us.
4. Find the right balance. Don’t force or pressure your child to do something they are fearful of because it may backfire on everyone and make things worse. Be mindful of finding that middle ground, that place of gentle encouragement somewhere between being too pushy or giving in by avoiding the issue.
5. Take baby steps. If you want your child to get over her fear of masks, gradually expose her to the concept. Begin by inviting her to draw and make her own mask. Next step - cut it out and wear it when ready. Next step -Take pictures of her with it on and off and then look at them together. Next - Look at a book of different masks people have made. Next - Highlight the fact that she is able to put her mask on and take it off as she wishes. Then let her know she can make that same request of others. Be patient and don’t rush, even though it may take weeks or months to accomplish the steps above.
6. Engage up neighbours and families. Prepare your families and friends in advance so the trick or treat is fun activity.
7. Have your own party. If you can’t be sure what will happen at a party your child is invited to - have your own. Plan a party with your child around Halloween items that feel safe to them, such as pumpkins..
8. Role-play and practice. Have a Halloween dress rehearsal that will allow your child to have a positive experience with this annual ritual.
Make it their own by encouraging dress up, creating arts and crafts for decorations, identifying treats to hand out and what you have to do to get them. This is called complimentary play and is a great way to help your child become less sensitive to the actual event.
9. Give your child control. It is human nature to feel safer when we think we have control over a situation. In addition to the two ideas directly above, provide ample opportunity for your child to have choices.
Just remember to limit them to two, always making one an option you know they will accept and feel safe with. Leaving choices open ended will only work to create another dilemma.
Penny for the Pooka !!!!!!!!!!
Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychology and counselling practice in Portarlington, helping with panic attacks, anxiety, anger, depression, PTSD, etc for children, adults and families. Call 087 1302899 or visit www.dreddiemurphy.ie