14 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD



Halloween is a bonus opportunity to acquire a treasure trove of candy, and have fun dressing up, but it is also a holiday about fear. At its best, Halloween offers a playful opportunity to encounter  imaginary fears —  ghosts, zombies and the like. By dressing up, a child can assume another persona such as a powerful superhero, or momentarily go over to the dark side by becoming Darth Vader or a zombie-ghost. In this way, the holiday retains some of its relationship to its Celtic origins, where it was believed that in this seasonal transition between fall and winter, ghosts and other roaming spirits would be out and about. By putting on masks and costumes, you could fool the spirits into thinking you were one of them, and thus, they would leave you alone. It is even possible that your mask might frighten the spirits away. And besides, dressing up is just fun by itself.   

But for this holiday to be fun and not a “Nightmare on Elm Street,” a parent needs to know whether a child can make the distinction between what is pretend and what is real. Otherwise, the child may not be able to understand that changes in appearance do not alter a person’s underlying identity. Preschool children are the most vulnerable in this regard. They are often confused by transformations in appearances, and it makes them uneasy and sometimes quite frightened. When a parent dresses in a costume or puts on a mask, the preschool child may be anxiously uncertain as to whether mommy has actually changed into a witch. This difficulty in dealing with transformations and alterations in appearances also explains why preschoolers and even some older children can be frightened by movies such as Spirited Away , an animated  film in which the parents get turned into pigs.   

The exaggeration or distortions in appearance that are part of many masks can create frightening sticky images for the child. The exaggerated smiles and eyes of clowns are often a source of distress and discomfort for children rather than a source of amusement. The vivid exaggeration of appearance, just like a frightening scene in a movie, can get stuck in the imagination and be hard to dislodge, especially at nighttime.

So for Halloween to be fun and not traumatizing, adults need to be thoughtful about how easy it is for  children to tolerate changes in appearances or to erase sticky images from their minds. As an age group, preschool children are most challenged by these issues, but school-age children are also vulnerable. Parents may need to restrain themselves in the costumes they put on and think twice about greeting trick-or-treaters with scary costumes. Remember, too, that children can be reluctant to verbalize their fears because they don’t want to be considered “ scaredy-cats,” so be alert for nonverbal signs of anxiety, and remember things that may have scared your child in the past. Rather than tell your children not to be afraid, use the occasion to help them articulate what they are afraid of. An anxious child may seem eager to go into the haunted house, only to have nightmares that night. With the knowledge that the child tends to get anxious, the parent may need to exert some authority and say no to the haunted house. The goal is to have Halloween be exciting and fun, not frightening. It helps to remember that the children themselves are not always the best judges of what they are up for.  

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