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Beware: Halloween Can Frighten Small Children

Experts offer suggestions for helping small children who fear Halloween

— On Halloween, when many don their scariest attire and head out for an evening of frightful fun, not everyone experiences merriment. Experts say some festivities can overwhelm tiny revelers.

“In preschool, children are not logical thinkers and they can only think about one thing at a time. “If something looks like a werewolf, then it is a werewolf. And young children are fearful of things that could hurt them,” said Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington.

There are a few techniques that parents can employ to take some of the fright out of Halloween. “One of the things that parents can do is to go over the top in preparing small children,” said Centreville resident Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. associate professor. Department of Psychology at George Mason University. “Role play with them and say ‘you’ll see people with blood on their faces, they’re not going to hurt you, they are just like actors.’ You should be really playful about it. Not only is it useful, but it is actually a fun family activity.”

Showing empathy can help children feel secure. “It is natural for children to be scared of scary costumes. One of the major pieces that I would think about is the parents’ ability to help children distinguish between fantasy and reality. Offering support and talking through the feelings creates a safe environment during a pretty scary walk down the street with lots of scary figures,” said Frederic Bemak, Ed.D., George Mason University professor of Counseling and Development and founder and Director of the Diversity Research and Action Center.

Another suggestion, say experts, is drawing attention to the light-hearted aspects of the holiday. “Get kids to focus on how interesting and curious and weird Halloween is,” said Kashdan. “Tell them to look for the coolest thing in a person’s costume as they are about to walk past you. Knowing that someone is about to come by wearing a really cool costume parents can say ‘I want you to tell me the coolest thing that you see.’ They are intentionally focusing on the positive aspect of the costume and forgetting that it could be scary. It is a playful way for managing you anxiety.”

Show compassion. “I always get disenchanted when I see dad’s pushing their kids too far and saying ‘you’re too old to be crying’ or ‘why are you so scared’,” said Kashdan. “Try not to be like a Great Depression [-era] grandfather. Try to be compassionate with your kids. Remember they don’t understand their emotions or what causes them. It is really counterproductive when parents push their kids and say that they are supposed to be calm, they are supposed to be having fun. It they feel fear, honor that feeling and appreciate the fact that you have a moment to show your kids compassion and love.

Keep costumes non-threatening. “I always suggest that young children try to avoid dressing up as characters that are scary, because they truly believe that a witch is a real witch,” said Gulyn. “It is especially confusing if it is a family member. A dad dressed up like a werewolf can actually terrorize a young child because they’ll believe that the Dad has turned into a werewolf.”

Give children down time before the evening’s festivities. “Make sure they are rested and have something to eat that is healthy,” said Gulyn. “They should rest and chill out so they can have fun on Halloween.”