by John Mersch, MD
The tradition of celebrating Halloween is a central feature of the fall season in the U.S. While infants and toddlers are often oblivious to the costume selected by their parents, older children find excitement in the “trick or treat experience.” The following suggestions should promote a safe and enjoyable October 31st.
- Children less than 2 Years of Age: This age of childhood is just starting to discover the world of imagination. Differentiating reality from fantasy is often difficult if not impossible. Parents can provide an emotional safety net during the Halloween season by reminding their children what is “pretend” and what is not. Reinforcement of the concept of pretend by comparing previous experiences (e.g. playing dress-up) with the future ones to be experienced on October 31st (e.g. costumes for themselves and others) will be helpful.
Physical safety is paramount, avoidance of masks (vision impairment), street safety (not crossing without an adult), using flashlights and removal of “treats,” which may pose a choking hazard will guarantee a pleasant experience for both child and parent.
- 3 to 5 Years of Age: The capability of imagination in this age range of 3 to 5 years is extreme – reason is dominated by perception (i.e. “perception is reality”). Therefore it is best to avoid masks, as they may be both scary and dangerous by restricting vision. Similarly, it is best to stay away from extremely dark and noisy areas (e.g. “haunted houses”). Prior to Halloween night, let the child get used to their costume by wearing it; rehearse saying “trick or treat,” and reinforce that everyone who is dressed in costume is also playing a pretend game just as they are. Discuss and reinforce real vs. not real. Allow them to express their concerns and fears and provide reassurance that your job as their parent is to protect them. Do NOT tell them “don’t be afraid,” this will stifle their need to express anxiety and invalidates their concerns and fears. If you are going to take them out on Halloween, try to go early in the evening before dark, and before their older peers venture out.
- 5 to 8 Years of Age: In this age range, a reduction in pure imaginary play and thought process makes way for the introduction of logical thinking. This more sophisticated insight system makes these children less sensitive to irrational fear (witches and ghosts) but more sensitive to rational ones (mutilated bodies, blood and gore, and physical deformity). While some children profess an enjoyment of being scared and are fascinated with such costumes, their tolerance of such fears is often tenuous. Avoid movies or TV shows which emphasize such content.
- 8 to 11 Years of Age: This age range (and through adolescence) provides a further maturation of rational fear along with the development of what some psychologists call “social fear.” Anxiety about “fitting in” is manifested by concerns regarding social embarrassment (e.g. being kissed by a mother in public, being in the “right group,” etc.). Fundamentally these concerns generate a need for peer acceptance – and such vulnerable children may be drawn into situations counter to good sense or their family upbringing. Halloween provides an opportunity to wear outlandish or fear inducing costumes. The goal is to shock adults – however, the very young children these adults are accompanying during the early trick or treating hours may be affected as innocent victims. Counseling them regarding this unintended consequence is important. In addition, reminding them that destructive behavior (for example, destroying property, destroying pumpkins, “egging” cars, etc.) is illegal and will not be tolerated.
SOCPA providers and staff would like to wish you and your family a safe and happy fall season!
The contents of this web site are provided as an informational tool. This is not intended to replace medical advice or care administered by a healthcare professional. Common sense should always be used when referencing this site. If, at any time, you feel your child is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.