By Sharon Nolfi, M.A.
We rang the bell and waited: a two-year old knight, a four year-old princess and me. The door cracked open and a large menacing face peered out and yelled, "boo!!" The princess laughed and shouted "trick or treat". The knight bolted, jumping off the porch and running across the lawn to the sidewalk.
Our eleven-year-old neighbor quickly removed his mask and tried to coax my son back saying, "It's only a mask. It's really me, Adam, your friend." My son would not budge, his two-year old mind unable to understand that Adam was still Adam, although his appearance was covered-up by the mask.
My son's reaction was completely normal, as the ability to grasp that a person remains himself even when wearing a disguise does not develop until age four or five. Even then, the ability may come and go in different situations. Like all aspects of mental development, this skill grows over time.
Halloween, with its scary sounds and sights, can induce real fear in young children. The experience of being frightened can lead to nightmares and fears that persist long after the holiday. Protect the youngest members of your family from unnecessary and harmful fright by following these tips.
1. Choose Unthreatening Costumes and Party Themes. Favor good fairies over witches, and pumpkins over goblins.
2. Encourage Costumes Without Masks. Mask-free costumes help children to understand that a person can take on an imaginary role and still remain the same person. Many pediatricians and police officers recommend against masks because they block vision and can lead to accidents.
3. Avoid Haunted Houses. Haunted houses contain multiple scary scenes, all of them displayed in the dark accompanied by scary music. They are disturbing and inappropriate for young children.
4. Avoid Groups of Older Costumed Children. Older masked and costumed children are another unnecessary source of fear, especially because some of them enjoy frightening their younger friends. Small children will be less confused by costumed figures their own size
5. Play "Dress-Up" Throughout the Year. Kids love this game, which helps them learn how a person can take on an imaginary role but still remain herself.
6. Try the "Mask" Game. Place a mask over only part of your face, and then quickly take it away. Let your child observe how mom or dad is still there, with or without the mask. Gradually cover up more of your face, again removing the mask quickly. Let your child try playing with the mask in the same way, in front of a mirror. This can be played as a variant of "peek-a-boo," an all-time favorite of most young children.
7. Stay Close to your Child While Trick-or-Treating. In addition to ensuring their physical safety, you can explain threatening sights and sounds and diffuse fears as they arise. Remember that your presence is the ultimate security for your child.
8. Take Your Child's Fear Seriously. Don't laugh it off, or worse, tease or mock your child over it. Don't allow others to do these things either, including older children. Try to explain to your frightened child that the scary images are not real, but above all, comfort and help your child to feel comfortable.
As for the frightened knight, my three-year old son would not even approach "that scary house" the next Halloween. This was so even though he played with the children who lived there and had visited the home during daylight hours. Two years later, a confident four-year-old was eager to trick-or-treat at the once-feared house. When the door opened and a masked face appeared, my son shouted, "That's a mask! I know it's you, Adam. Give me my candy!" Adam laughed, and handed over a chocolate pumpkin.
Sharon Nolfi is a licensed school psychologist and parent of grown children. Her writing has appeared in publications across North America, including many regional parenting magazines.