Ghosts and goblins, grinning jack-o'-lanterns, scary skeletons... Some preschoolers love the spooky spectacle of this holiday (not to mention all the candy!), but others can get freaked out around creepy masks, costumes, and crowds of kids. "Halloween can present a challenge for parents of 3- and 4-year-olds because this is the age when children first truly show an interest in trick-or-treating, and yet they're still young enough to get frightened or overstimulated," says Bonnie Zucker, Psy.D., a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, and author of Anxiety-Free Kids. It's hard to know how much your child will be up for on Halloween. But you can try to anticipate any potential problems before then so you can keep the day low-key and fun for everyone.
While kiddie parades and preschool parties are pretty tame (apple cider and candy corn, anyone?), it can be nearly impossible to avoid all deathly imagery that appears on front lawns, in malls, and on TV at this time of year. But don't start mapping a detour around the cackling witches and graveyard scenes in your neighbors' yards. Experts caution against completely going out of your way to bypass anything that could give your kid the creeps. "That can actually worsen any anxiety a child might be feeling, because it reinforces the idea that there is something to be afraid of," says Dr. Zucker.
That doesn't mean you should take your tyke into a haunted house that will scare the bejeezus out of him, but you can help familiarize him with the scary stuff. "Take mini steps. Go to a Halloween store. Find pictures of people in costumes online, or go to a local farm stand that has some decorations up," suggests Dr. Zucker.
You can also desensitize your preschooler by doing a crafts project that portrays a scary character in a fun way, say, carving a smiling pumpkin or making crepe-paper ghosts.
Chill Out on Costumes
Posting an adorable photo on Facebook of your little one dressed as a pirate or a bumblebee the day after Halloween can be a rite of passage. But don't be surprised if your preschooler upends that plan by suddenly refusing to get into character on the big day.
Last Halloween, my friend Deborah Starr, of Ithaca, New York, was delighted when her two daughters decided to make their own cupcake costumes out of pillowcases, tin foil, and fabric paint. But when Halloween rolled around, 3-year-old Dina wouldn't wear the costume. "She loved making the outfit, but she had no interest in actually wearing it," Starr told me.
Dina was just being a typical fickle pickle. "Preschool-age children are very changeable -- they may be excited and absorbed by something on Tuesday and completely over it by Thursday," says Susan Engel, Ph.D., professor of child development at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and author of Real Kids. Not only have their interests moved on, but they may also decide that the costume is too itchy, that a heavy cape keeps them from running around, or they just don't feel like putting on a hat that day.
If your child balks at wearing the costume you made or bought, offer a compromise -- she can take it to school and put it on there for the class party, or she can wear the superhero boots but skip the cape. If she still won't budge, then let it go. "Save your power struggles for more important things," says Dr. Zucker.
To avoid disappointment, it's best not to spend a lot of money on a costume in the first place, since there's no guarantee she'll actually wear it. Working with what you have at home -- turning a favorite pair of overalls into a train-conductor costume or pairing jeans and a cowgirl hat from the dress-up box -- may have better results, since your child is already comfortable wearing them. And remember, flexibility and on-the-fly creativity can go a long way. "When it was time for trick-or-treating, we just put a winter hat we had that looks like a strawberry on Dina's head and we called it a costume," Starr recalls. "She was happy, and it was cute!"
Even if your child is only interested in dressing as an innocent puppy, there may still be lots of other people around him in elaborate face paint, scary masks, and creepy costumes, which can unnerve even the coolest cucumber of a child. "Last year my 9-year-old daughter dressed as a witch, which involved black lipstick and other dark makeup, and my 3-year-old was completely freaked out by her," reports New York City mom Katie Reeves. "She refused to go trick-or-treating or anywhere near her until she took the makeup off."
Although a preschooler may be aware that his sibling is underneath the grisly disguise, it can still be a difficult concept to get his head around, says Dr. Engel. "Research shows that young children can have trouble distinguishing appearance from reality, so it's very common for kids ages 2 to 4 to be freaked out by masks or makeup -- even their own," she explains.
Rather than trying to tone down any big siblings' costumes, Dr. Zucker suggests letting your child be involved in the transformation, so he can absorb the fact that the scary witch is just his silly older sister. "Not only should he watch his sister put the makeup on, but he could participate, putting a few dabs of lipstick on her," says Dr. Zucker. Visit the costume store together, and show him that masks are really nothing more than plastic and paint. Of course it may also help to limit your trick-or-treating to the daylight hours -- even an innocent pumpkin costume can look a lot scarier in the dark.
Your child may be thrilled to get a chocolate bar at the first two or three houses on your block, but by house number four, she may be done. "That's fine--she still gets the experience of trick-or-treating," says Dr. Zucker, who suggests having a backup plan: "If you have an older child who wants to stay out longer, you can take your preschooler home to hand out candy while your partner or another parent keeps going with the older one."
And remember, a 3-year-old who doesn't want to participate in the Halloween activities this year will be at a completely different developmental stage next year--she may become the 4-year-old who dresses like a ghost and runs around shouting "boooo!" And what a great Facebook photo that will make!
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.