At Halloween time children between the age of 2 and 5 experience events that are not only new but spooky or scary also. These experiences can be frightening to the child who is just learning how to handle his or her fear of the unknown anyway. How can a parent help their children face the scary world of Halloween?
The first thing to recognize is that children learn how to handle scary events by observing their parents. If a new or strange event is encountered the child first looks to the parent to determine if they should be scared or not. After all this event is new to them and determining if it is an event of danger will be partially determined by the reaction of the person in life who they have come to depend on.
A child psychiatrist named Bruno Bettleheim relays this story that helps us understand the role of the parent when it comes to learning how to handle scary events. He recalls that when he was a small boy in London, during the war, air raids were frequent. One night at about 3:00 in the morning his mother woke him up and said something like this to him, "Brono come here to the window. The apartment next door has been bombed and is on fire. You will not have another chance in your life to experience something like this."
The next morning Bruno went down stairs to play with a little friend and found him and his Mother still huddled in the corner. He could not understand why they were so frightened. The people in the apartment were safe. The bombing was over. Bruno's
Mother had faced a potentially frightening experience with excitement. She communicated to Bruno that life's experiences are not to be feared but to be enjoyed. The neighbor boy's mother, on the other hand, was teaching her child that we should fear the unknown.
A parent can set the stage for a child so that fears can be put in their proper perspective. If you are shopping with your child and you encounter a scary witch display you have some interesting choices as a parent. Your knowledge of your child and your relationship with him/her is a critical factor in determining how you respond. Assess your child's reaction. See if your child is responding in a way that requires comforted, ignoring, or confronting as a new and unique experience. Let him/her know that if they need you for comfort, you are available.
Some parents feel that comforting a child creates a child who is scared of new things. The opposite is true. If your child knows you are available to them when they decide to investigate a strange or scary situation, they are more likely to call upon the limited courage they possess.
This kind of approach empowers your child by letting them know how to access you and sends them the message that you have faith in them. You let them know that you are behind them as they face any potentially "exciting" (not scary) event.
A general rule for parents to follow is to be available to comfort the child who is confronting a new or scary situation. Give the child time to decide if they want to confront this new phenomenon. Then help the child interpret the seriousness of this "Halloween" experience. In this way a scary event becomes a learning experience that is growth producing not traumatizing.
In spite of what parents do, sometimes children will still develop phobias. Phobias are fears that result from an experience with something that was unexpected. It is as if this unexpected experience was immediately hard wired into the brain as a danger. Exposure to similar events in the future automatically sends signals to the child's mind to "beware."
Phobias can be weak or strong and, even though they are easily learned, they take a long time to go away. Phobias are best handled by exposing the child to experiences that are similar to the original traumatic event but that he/she can handle. If the child is frightened by a witch or ghost, be patient with him/her. Set an example for the child by reacting to witches or ghosts in a non-emotional way. Do not force. In time your child will figure out that witches and ghosts are not to be feared.
One caution, do not intentionally frighten children or expose them to events, movies, etc. that are designed to frighten. Because young children have a difficult time determining what is real and what is unreal, what is possible and what is impossible, they can carry fears for a long time. Why frighten them unnecessarily? Children experience events that are new and unexplainable frequently without creating artificial trauma. Why give them information they do not need and that has the potential to cause doubt and fear? You would not want someone to do this to you.