I’ve noticed in the last 10 years how much earlier Halloween decorations start to go up now. I saw one family putting them up the last weekend of September this year. The elaborateness of them seems to have gone over the top too. My favorite was an inflatable ghost that rose up from behind a gravestone and then went back down slowly. Very effective on the spookiness scale.
So how do kids perceive all this? We as adults have a filter that says it’s not real. Small children may see the scary things and be either fascinated or afraid depending on their previous experience. Older children (6 to 10 years old) may experience real fear because of images that they’ve seen and stories that they’ve heard.
Some kids manage the fear and enjoy the startle factor that comes from being scared momentarily. Others make it very clear that they are afraid and upset by the images and can tell a parent that they don’t like looking at a certain decoration. The third category of children are the ones who feel afraid internally but can’t express it for fear of looking “like a sissy.” These children often have older siblings that they are eager to impress. When left alone with those feelings of fear these children may have their fear come out in other ways. They may have a meltdown over having to go to bed. Or maybe they become resistant to activities that are normally fun for them to do.
As a parent, you can handle all three of these scenarios! First of all, know your child. If there are experiences that predispose your child to anxiety, count on the fact that Halloween is a stressful season for them. No matter how many times you say, “It’s not real. You don’t have to be afraid,” they are still going to need time to process their feelings, either verbally or just through play. Provide downtime leading up to the holiday as well as on the day. When trick-or-treating, for children 5 and under, I would recommend only going to houses of people you know and keep it to 30 to 45 minutes. Little people will be overstimulated by any more than that. For older children you as the parent can set up the structure of the evening so that expectations are clear about how long you will go door-to-door, how much candy they can eat and what time they have to be in bed. Afterwards, process what they saw by asking questions like, “What was the scariest costume you saw?” or “What was the high and low of the evening?“ Having time at home before they go to bed where they can play or read is the ideal to give them some space to process on their own.
However you do it, check your own expectations as well. Are you trying to create an experience for your child that you didn’t get? Are you being as creative as you can with the costumes to impress another family? If you’re focusing on your child, even if they want to wear a garbage bag as a costume (yes, that really happened) you’ll be able to enter into their excitement and enjoy the holiday with less external pressure.