WRPA top banner
Western Reserve Psychological Associates, Inc.Empowering change for over 40 years
> return to archived articles >

Archived Article

Counseling Children: Halloween Anxiety

Halloween can be one of the most fun times of the year for young children, or it can be a traumatic and anxiety-provoking experience. Parents whose children exhibit symptoms of fear, withdrawal, crying, hyperventilation, or tension need to understand what is causing the adverse reaction and know how to cope with the problem behaviors.

In general, preschool children, ages 3-5, often exhibit problem behaviors at some point in time. It is common for them to exhibit fear, anxiety, have nightmares and be impulsive. They also have difficulty expressing themselves due to their limited range of speech. Cognitively, their thinking is illogical, egocentric, symbolic and magical. Their judgments are based on their perceptions which often times are illogical. Also, the young child's thinking is one-dimensional which means he/she can only attend to one attribute or dimension at one time. In other words, if Daddy puts on a scary mask, Daddy becomes the scary creature. The Trick-or-Treaters, due to magical thinking, take on the characteristics of the costumes to the young child. Some young children like their own costume and may have picked it out but will refuse to wear it. Some children believe they will be transformed into a different person.

There are several ways to handle the Halloween "experience" with your young child. Particularly if your child gets scared when seeing scary things, you can begin exposing him/her to the Halloween decorations early in the month. Let the child see and, if possible, play with the ghosts, goblins, witches and Jack-o-Lanterns just to familiarize them with the faces.

A parent can expose the child to Halloween books where happy, normal children dress up in costumes. Let the young child know that Halloween is fun and exciting rather than scary. Let your child dress up in grown-up clothes or costumes prior to Halloween so the association is positive and perceived as a fun game. The more exposure a child has to things being real vs. not real, the less anxiety he/she will experience during the events of Halloween.

Because pre-schoolers thinking is concrete, and they have difficulty generalizing from one situation to the next, they still may be traumatized with the sights and sounds of Halloween. So not matter what kind of preparation you do with your pre-schooler, you still may be faced with a scared child. In fact, the scary visions can cause violent nightmares and lingering bad thoughts. Protect your young child from experiencing really scary images. Three to five year olds are too young to be subjected to haunted houses, to adult Halloween parties, or to scary movies. Some children will not have an immediate reaction to the scary images but will have nightmares that linger for some time.

If your child wakes up crying from a bad dream or is afraid and scared, the first thing to do is help him/her relax. Use a calm soothing voice and assure your child that everything is okay and that he/she is safe and secure. If you yell at your child and tell him the monster is not real, the negative emotions can intensify and make the problem worse. The preschooler's perception of what is real and not real is illogical to others but make perfect sense to the child. The feelings of security usually offset the intense anxiety, and the fear quickly fades.

As your child gets older and develops physically and emotionally, Halloween usually becomes less scary and more fun. Middle age children (ages 6-11) can deal with two pieces of information and understand that masks do not transform the person into a character. They also have developed better use of speech and language and understand the concept of Halloween. They have the ability to separate reality and make believe.

If your child does not outgrow the fears and anxieties and is experiencing panic attacks, phobias and ongoing anxiety, the problem may be more chronic in nature, and your child may require professional help. You will want to work with a person who has experience in treating children. You child can learn how to anticipate anxiety, how to reduce worry, and overall feel more in control.

Janet Dix, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

> return to archived articles >