parenting q&a: Keeping Halloween fun - and not too scary - for little ones
Every year at this time, questions come up about Halloween. Since there is a new crop of small children and eager parents every year, I thought you might be interested in seeing what one parent wondered about last Halloween and how I suggested she think about it.
I am being flooded with catalogs for Halloween merchandise and my son is only 3! Does he understand what Halloween is about? The stuff in the stores is kind of scary and I wonder about how much he should participate at his age. What about trick-or-treating?
HM, Ann Arbor
Those are really good questions. I think your instinct is right that lots of what you see around you is too scary for a 3-year-old. There are other ways to think about this holiday to make it both manageable and fun. Here is the text of a note we distribute every year to families at Allen Creek Preschool to address these very issues:
"Halloween is coming, bringing thoughts of pumpkins, candy, and costumes. It also evokes the excitement of being out in the dark and the scariness of ghosts, goblins and witches. Schoolchildren enjoy testing the limits of their bravery, confirming their newfound independence and knowledge by pretending to be monsters and so forth. For little children, however, Halloween can be very scary, unless we make sure that the celebration matches their level of understanding."
Preschoolers are just learning all about the world around them, anchoring themselves in what they are used to. Very young children do not understand masks and find it hard to remember that it might be a familiar person behind the different face. To them, it can be terrifying when the familiar child or adult disappears to be replaced by a strange-looking, motionless mask.
Older children know that monsters and ghosts are imaginary, but
little children don’t yet know the difference between real and pretend.
They may be confused by the images they see in stores and on
neighborhood lawns, and frightened when people dress up as witches or
Preschoolers turn to their parents, grandparents and trusted adults for reassurance. It helps them make sense of their experiences when grownups are consistent. Adults dressed up in costumes can be disorienting and confusing. We will have more fun at Halloween if we are available to ensure our little ones’ enjoyment.
Other people may not understand how preschoolers think and feel - if you go trick-or-treating, grownups may answer the door in scary costumes or startle children with sound effects or saying “boo,” so it is important to accompany your little one. Walk up to the door with your child and have an adult available to each child to explain what is going on and make sure that each part of the experience is fun. A walk in the dark to a few familiar houses is adventure enough for most preschoolers!
Making costumes out of readily available clothes and props at home can be a shared creative activity that makes the run-up to Halloween part of the pleasure. Imitating familiar real-life characters - firefighters, nurses, construction workers - or animals like cats, bears, or tigers is a way of learning about the world. It is also easier to make such costumes visible, safe and cosy for a cold, dark evening!
There is another aspect of Halloween that can be scary for young children -- overexcitement is scary itself as the feelings threaten to get out of control. Holidays are exciting times, but little ones are just beginning to master their feelings. Measured Halloween excitement can be a shared pleasure that helps your child grow. Have a Happy Halloween!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council and is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through