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Scary Fun: Keeping Halloween Happy for Sensitive Kids

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


The year I was three I was scarred for life. I saw the re-release of the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was terrified by the Evil Queen. Then I was frightened by a Halloween pig mask that my parents hid on a high shelf in the hall closet after it became clear the mask gave me the willies. Then I was afraid of that closet.

Follow that with those horrible flying monkeys in the televised presentation of The Wizard of Oz when I was seven and you have a pattern of early media-induced trauma that lingers to this very day. My parents didn’t try to scare me. But scary stuff happened. How about you? Do you have scary memories that haunt you?

Haunting memories not only linger but they get in the way of a child’s present day life too. Goodness knows, you don’t want your child to suffer from nightmares inspired by scary fun. And you don’t want him to live in fear of “ordinary scares” either. So how can you protect your child from feeling terrified without over protecting him? Here are some tips.

Respect your child’s feelings. If he says it’s scary, it’s scary. Don’t tell him it’s not. And never suggest he’s a baby or that he’ll like this sort of thing more when he’s a big boy, or that big boys don’t cry about stuff like that. You might be surprised by what your child finds unnerving but that doesn’t make him wrong.

Dial down the sensations. Your child’s tender sensibilities haven’t been dulled by years of media violence as yours have. Your child doesn’t realize that in a kids’ show the ending will always be happy. She doesn’t “get” that something’s just a puppet or that this is “just a movie” or that it’s only Cousin Josh under that makeup and mask. Keep the fright level near zero. By the way, this includes scary music and noises and all sorts of sensations, not just visual stuff. The monster mask might be fun enough until the wearer actually sounds like a monster too.

Spring no surprises. Sometimes it’s not what you see, it’s the unexpectedness of it. Hitchcock knew this. And sometimes it’s knowing a surprise is coming, just not when or where. So dial down the suspense and spring no surprises. There will be time enough for that when your child is older and can scare you back!

Provide a way to hide. Kid haven’t learned yet how to protect themselves so be ready to be their protector. At the movies, be quick to cover eyes and ears at the scary parts. At home, don’t make a fuss if your child leaves the room or ducks behind the furniture when things get intense. And don’t hesitate to turn off the TV, step out of the theater, or close the book if fear starts to escalate. Don’t trap your child in a frightening situation.

Work it out. One of the funny things about fear is that once we’ve learned how it works, it’s kind of fun to replay it. The tension of a scary moment can be what makes us like a book or movie or Halloween costume. Hitchcock knew this too. So don’t be surprised if what scares your child becomes almost an obsession, as he works out the scary parts’ effects. My four-year-old granddaughter loves a gently scary story in the Little Bear series. She wants it read over and over and over again.

Halloween is a fun time if everyone is having fun. It’s not so fun if someone feels tense and unnerved. Help your child find his personal comfort level with scary stuff  – now and at other times too – and don’t push his limits too hard. A gentle soul needs your protection.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.