Mersch, MD, FAAP
Medical Editor: David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP
The tradition of celebrating Halloween is a central feature of the fall season in the U.S. While infants and toddlers are often oblivious to the costume selected by their parents, older children find excitement in the "trick or treat experience." The following suggestions should promote a safe and enjoyable October 31st.
- Children less than 2 years of age:
This age of childhood
is just starting to discover the world of imagination. Differentiating
reality from fantasy is often difficult if not impossible. Parents can
provide an emotional safety net during the Halloween season by reminding
their children what is "pretend" and what is not. Reinforcement of the
concept of pretend by comparing previous experiences (for example, playing
dress-up) with the future ones to be experienced on Oct. 31 (for
example, costumes for themselves and others) will be helpful.
Physical safety is paramount, avoidance of masks (vision impairment), street safety (not crossing without an adult), using flashlights and removal of "treats" that may pose a choking hazard will guarantee a pleasant experience for both child and parent.
- 3 to 5 years of age: The capability of imagination in this
age range of 3 to 5 years is
extreme; reason is dominated by perception (for example, "perception is reality").
Therefore it is best to avoid masks, as they may be both scary and dangerous by
restricting vision. Similarly, it is best to stay away from extremely dark and
noisy areas (for example, haunted houses). Prior to Halloween night, let the
child get used to their costume by wearing it; rehearse saying "trick or treat,"
and reinforce that everyone who is dressed in costume is also playing a pretend
game just as they are. Discuss and reinforce real vs. not real. Allow them to
express their concerns and fears and provide reassurance that your job as their
parent is to protect them. Do not tell them "don't be afraid" this will stifle
their need to express anxiety and invalidates their concerns and fears. If you
are going to take them out on Halloween, try to go early in the evening before
dark and before their older peers venture out.
- 5 to 8 years of age: In this age range, a reduction in pure imaginary play
and thought process makes way for the introduction of logical thinking. This
more sophisticated insight system makes these children less sensitive to
irrational fear (witches and ghosts) but more sensitive to rational ones
(mutilated bodies, blood and gore, and physical deformity). While some children
profess an enjoyment of being scared and are fascinated with such costumes,
their tolerance of such fears is often tenuous. Avoid movies or TV shows which
emphasize such content.
- 8 to 11 years of age: This age range (and through adolescence) provides a further maturation of rational fear along with the development of what some psychologists call "social fear." Anxiety about "fitting in" is manifested by concerns regarding social embarrassment (for example, being kissed by a mother in public), being in the "right group," etc. Fundamentally, these concerns generate a need for peer acceptance and such vulnerable children may be drawn into situations counter to good sense or their family upbringing. Halloween provides an opportunity to wear outlandish or fear-inducing costumes. The goal is to shock adults. However, the very young children these adults are accompanying during the early trick or treating hours may be affected as innocent victims. Counseling them regarding this unintended consequence is important. In addition, reminding them that destructive behavior (for example, destroying property, destroying pumpkins, "egging" cars, etc.) is illegal and will not be tolerated.