October is the month many children look forward to. The anticipation of Trick or Treating with costumes, candy, and parties with creepy ghouls and goblins is exciting - but not to everyone.
Every child is different and unique. Halloween can be scary and anxiety provoking for some children, especially those who experience the world from a different perspective.
It's typical for almost all of children to develop anxieties and fears at some point in their childhood. Children with special needs, especially those with sensory issues and those on the autism spectrum, can be a bit more sensitive. Their unique concerns may loom larger and linger past the typical developmental stage of other children.
The usual fears of the dark, masks, monsters and things that go bump in the night begins to surface around the age of three for most children regardless of abilities. This occurs just as a child’s imagination and sense of creativity starts to evolve. Fears develop as the imagination begins to blossom and the distinction between real and unreal sometimes becomes more difficult to detect.
This is a normal part of development, a time when children need our guidance to help them tell the difference and begin to develop skills to address their fears on their own.
Most children get beyond this stage without much difficulty yet others seem to get stuck in a scary place for longer than we would like. With Halloween approaching, these fears can easily escalate if we aren’t paying attention or are confused about how to address them.
If your child isn’t looking forward to the 'tricks and treats' this season brings and their anxiety is causing everyone angst, don’t dismay, here are ten ideas for scaring these frights away.
1 - Ask why and listen. Halloween presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about fear in a controlled environment. Opening up a conversation with your child and listening without judgment can go a long way in reducing fears. Be cautious though about making this the topic of every conversation because this will only overindulge their fears and make them grow.
2 - Validate feelings. Never tell a child there is nothing to be afraid of. It is important to accept any and all of their fears as real for them. Validating a child’s worries, doubts and fears is the first step towards normalizing them. You can also try sharing stories of your childhood fears but try to elaborate more on how you conquered them then on what they were.
3 - Separate fear from danger. It is important to help young children determine the difference between fear and danger. There are many things in this world we may fear that will never hurt us but actually help us. And there are those things, such as fire, that we need to fear for our own safety because it is dangerous and will hurt us.
4 - Find the right balance. Don’t force, pressure, or coerce your child to do something they are fearful of because it may backfire on everyone and make things worse. You know best where your child’s breaking point is. Be mindful of finding that middle ground, that place of gentle encouragement somewhere between being too pushy or giving in by avoiding the issue.
5 - Take baby steps. If you want your child to get over her fear of masks, gradually expose her to the concept. Begin by inviting her to draw and make her own mask. Next step - cut it out and wear it when ready. Next step - Take pictures of her with it on and off and then look at them together. Next - Look at a book of different masks people have made. Next - Highlight the fact that she is able to put her mask on and take it off as she wishes. Then let her know she can make that same request of others. Be patient and don’t rush, even though it may take weeks or months to accomplish the steps above.
6 - Communicate with others. Remember that you are not the only one with a sensitive child whether they are on the spectrum or not. Talk to schools, churches, teachers, neighbors, friends and family about ways to make Halloween user friendly and safe for all children. You will be surprised to find out just how many listening ears there are out there.
7 - Have your own party. If you can’t be sure what will happen at a party your child is invited to – have your own. Plan a party with your child around Halloween items that feel safe to them, such as pumpkins. Help him carve a pumpkin with a smile on its face. Better yet, create the party around a theme they like - Fairy Tales perhaps.
8 - Role-play and practice. Have a Halloween dress rehearsal that will allow your child to have a positive experience with this annual fall ritual. Make it fun by encouraging dress up, creating arts and crafts for decorations, identifying treats to hand out, and what you have to do to get them. This is called complimentary play and is a great way to help your child become less sensitive to the actual event.
9 - Give your child control. It’s human nature to feel safer when we think we have control over a situation. In addition to the two ideas directly above, provide ample opportunity for your child to have choices. Just remember to limit them to two, always making one an option you know they will accept and feel safe with. Leaving choices open ended will only work to create another dilemma.
10 - Write your own social story. If you are not familiar with social stories, check out the website of Carol Gray, founder of social stories at http://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/. A social story describes a situation, skill, or concept in terms that your child will understand. Often written from your child’s perspective it is a great way to introduce a new behavior, occasion or skill you want your child to master.
It’s also very important that you address your own fears about your ability to handle situations appropriately. As parents we need to acquire confidence in what we are doing. Children can tell when mom or dad are flustered or don’t have a clue about how to handle things and this does not help them to feel safe. Developing a sense of confidence and modeling that you can deal with your children's fears calmly, firmly and with confidence will go a long way in helping them master their own fears.