A nightmare-free Halloween

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Kids may need help to separate fantasy from reality

A nightmare-free Halloween
(Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Adults need to be aware that childhood fantasy, which is part of the magic, can also have a difficult aspect when the child is unable to determine what’s real.

— Tina Feigal, parent coach and former school psychologist

Whether it’s ghosts and goblins terrorising your 3-year old or remnants of a mask-wearing movie slasher haunting your 6-year old, Halloween can mystify even the most well-adjusted child. The confusion gets even worse when scary villain costumes prance around ghostly garden ornaments -- yet lurking behind each neighborhood door are sweet treats and a friendly greeting. “What makes Halloween fun is when kids can play with and dress up as things that are scary for them,” said Tamar Chansky, child psychologist and author of “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety.” “It’s not fun when kids are terrified of something,” Chansky said. It's up to parents to help keep the bogeyman at bay during Halloween.

Unreal frights

A nightmare-free Halloween
Young children cannot fully distinguish between fantasy and reality. (Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

If your child is deathly afraid of the ghosts and goblins wandering the streets on Halloween, he isn’t alone. In fact, most children 7 and younger express fears this time of year because their brains do not fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, said Tina Feigal, parent coach and former school psychologist.

“Adults need to be aware that childhood fantasy, which is part of the magic, can also have a difficult aspect when the child is unable to determine what’s real,” Feigal said. “Halloween is a particularly challenging holiday, with a huge draw for children and huge potential for fright.”

When a child sees a person in a mask, he may be responding with fear because he truly believes he is seeing a monster, not a person.

Jennifer Little, a 40-year teacher with a doctorate, notes that infants and toddlers do not have the cognitive developmental reasoning to expand from fantasy to reality or reality to fantasy.

“Everything seems real to them because they experience it,” Little said. “This is essentially an extension of the condition where, as infants and toddlers, if they don’t see it and where it went, it no longer exists.”

Right after the toddler years, children begin searching more for the truth behind the fantasy.

“When a child can witness the transformation of a known person going into costume, they know that person is still there, just looking funny,” Little said. “If they have not seen the transformation of getting into costume, it is a stranger who looks very different from everybody else, and therefore, scary.”

Exceptions are costumes of known cartoon faces, such as Cinderella, Casper the friendly ghost or Bob the Builder. Little said those are usually not scary for children because they view the person behind the mask as the cartoon character.

“This is why children at Disneyland are magically transported to believe that the friendly and loved costumed person is the character,” Little said.

Monsters away

A nightmare-free Halloween
Dress-up parties and costume shopping can help children understand the fantasy of Halloween. (Richard Lewisohn/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Conquering monsters with silly activities and pre-Halloween dress-up parties can help children master their fears. Those events help them process differences between fantasy and reality while trick or treating.

Chansky recommends parents turn the scary to silly with a monster makeover.

“Take catalogs or pictures of friendlyish costumes that may still be uncomfortable for the child, and have the child draw funny things on them, such as moustaches, trumpets, hair curlers,” Chansky said.

Chansky also suggests helping your child make his own monster with posters, cardboard and markers.

“When children draw a monster, they get the idea that it is created,” she said. “Have them name the monster and make up a funny story about her.”

Little recommends a day of costume shopping to familiarise your child with the ghosts and goblins she may see on Halloween night.

“Let her see, feel and play with the masks, preferably on the adult’s face so the child can watch the transformation happen,” Little said. “At that point, short talks can happen, such as ‘Am I really a gorilla?’ or ‘Am I really Cinderella?’ to give your child a foundational experience needed for fantasy versus reality.”

Technology can also help calm a child’s Halloween fears. Feigal suggests parents search the Internet for low-threat Halloween sights and sounds, then talk with the child about what is real and what is pretend.

“Giving examples of real and pretend can soothe anxiety about Halloween, creating familiarity that smooths the way for an enjoyable holiday,” she said.

Although Halloween can cause confusion and fright for many children, the fright of the night can offer a valuable learning experience, said Feigal.

“Children enjoy dressing up and playing a unique part for the day, and in a way, it is because they are learning to overcome their fears,” she said. “Kids use Halloween to strengthen their courage, which is what makes it fun and is likely its most valuable function.”

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