Trick or treat?

. October 23, 2012.

When my oldest daughter was four years old, we hit the magic age for trick or treating. She was able to walk around the neighborhood on her own two feet dressed as her favorite Disney princess. She was all in, and all excited.

She was the cutest Cinderella ever. After a round of preschool parties and a short trip around the neighborhood collecting treats, she settled in to help Dad give out Halloween candy. I was in the garage, putting away shoes, when I heard her scream at the top of her lungs.

Rushing into the living room, I was sure she had fallen or otherwise hurt herself. Instead, she sat in my husband’s lap, sobbing her heart out and still on the verge of panic. What had happened? A teenager, wearing the spooky white mask from the movie Scream, had asked for candy. That sight triggered a near pathological fear of all things Halloween for several years. We couldn’t even go down the trick or treat aisle at the grocery store without my daughter literally begging to go home.

Not so unusual

It’s not all that unusual for children to be unusually apprehensive around this time of year, when pretend witches and goblins lurk at every turn. That’s because a child’s brain interprets things literally. Where an adult might see the man behind the mask, a child sees a real monster.

“When they see that mask, it’s real. Even if you explain it, cognitively they can’t understand it,” says Mary Goebel-Komala, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and owner of Sophos Wellness Center in Findlay. “They are just responding to what they see.”

And what children see this time of year can be truly frightening. In addition to movies featuring Freddy and Jason, some families go all out at Halloween and make their homes into houses of horror. We have avoided some homes in our neighborhood because the kids before us were treated to people jumping out of bushes and scary music that even caused me to be concerned.

“In general kids have fears early in life, such as stranger anxiety and fear of the dark,” says John Malacos, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and chairman of the University of Findlay’s psychology department. “Fears are a part of the growing process. Halloween can heighten those fears.”

Underestimating fear

The key to dealing with Halloween-induced fear is to treat it like any other fear. Just because a child is afraid of a mask doesn’t make the fear any less real to him or her. No amount of “it’s just pretend” or “snap out of it” is going to make a child get over it.

“We often underestimate how scary this is for kids,” says Goebel-Komala. “We think it’s kind of funny sometimes, but this is serious for kids and they are expressing real fears.”

To work through the fear, try a little tenderness. Get non-scary books about Halloween out of the library, to acclimate a child to the fun traditions of the holiday. Attend a non-scary Halloween event, which many churches offer, and have fun with games, treats and non-gory costumes.

If the child wants to trick or treat, go early in the evening when there’s still a bit of daylight. Consider pairing a younger child with an older child to go up to the door, or pull a wagon where the child can stay and feel secure.

Whatever you do, don’t belittle your child. There’s nothing to be gained by making your child participate in Halloween activities he or she finds scary. That could extend the fear past the normal age when a child tends to grow out of such fear, usually around age five
to seven.

“Don’t make this a life or death situation,” says Malacos. “If a child doesn’t want to go trick or treating, don’t go. You have to read your child’s emotions. If the emotion is fear, let it go.
Go back home.”

The year after her scary encounter, my daughter would still cross the street when she saw someone in that particular costume.  Eventually, she got to the point where she could handle seeing that particular face. Now she looks forward to giving out Halloween candy – even to teenagers in Scream masks.