It is that time of year again when kids (and adults) get excited about dressing up, trick-or-treating, and feeling scared or scaring others. And, why? All for the sake of fun! I confess, I love Halloween! It is one of those times when kids and adults get to be silly and dress up for no other reason than for the sole purpose of having fun. However, as a child therapist in Washington DC, I also understand the very real fears that come with this scary night. Many of my child clients with anxiety share with me regularly how truly terrified they are at Halloween events.
Here are some of the fears and phobias that I’ve heard children share over the years as I’ve counseled them during regular psychotherapy sessions—fear of clowns, fear of the dark, fear of witches and ghosts, fear of haunted forests (of course), fear of being scared, etc. I believe that people like being scared during such times as Halloween because it mimics the same sensations as feeling excited. And, who doesn’t like to be excited? Actually, children with anxiety really dislike being excited, and scared. Why, might you wonder?
Anxiety heightens our experience of most feelings; and surprise compounds any feeling that we are experiencing at that moment. I am convinced that is why Pixar did not include the 6th primary emotion—Surprise—in their hit children’s movie release, Inside Out. In that movie, Riley’s emotional world is uprooted when her family moves from her secure hometown after her father receives a new job across the country. Pixar animated and personified the other 5 of the 6 primary emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Caution/Fear–but left out Surprise. Why? When we experience surprise, our other co-occurring feelings are amplified. And, how might a movie director and producer manage that in Riley’s storyline?
When anxious children are surprised on Halloween eve, they likely experience increased anxiety, which overrides any fun or excitement. Rather than enjoying the element of surprise when caught off-guard, anxious kids just feel more scared and anxious. Anxious kids also tend to experience their feelings as fairly fixed and concrete. Therefore, feeling scared will only make them feel more intensely scared and stuck rather than excited.
So how do you help anxious children cope with Halloween events and fears?
1. Start by acknowledging to ourselves and others that their feelings are strong and very real to them. They become anxious and scare more easily.
2. Talk with them about how much scary stuff they can handle on Halloween. Plan and prepare with them so that they feel more in control and less anxious overall.
3. Don’t force them into Halloween fun that elicits only greater anxiety for them. Let them bow out of events that are just too scary.
4. Plan with your anxious child about what parts of the fun they really do want to participate in and what specific coping strategies that they can employ. If trick-or-treating is too unpredictable, then you might help them choose to attend a Halloween party at a neighbor’s house where there will be familiar friends and family.
Halloween fears are real for anxious kids, and we have to listen to their cries for help when Halloween fun stops feeling fun. We can also arm them with some specific plans to cope with the festivities so that they can opt in to some Halloween events and opt out of those events that are more scary than enjoyable. Most importantly, parents can discuss how surprise amplifies all feelings. This conversation arms anxious kids with an understanding of the biology of feelings and helps anxious children feel more in control of their own reactions.