From ghosts to witches, monsters and skeletons, front porches and storefront windows everywhere tell us that something wicked is in the air.
Halloween can be a lot of ghoulish fun, but usually not so in the youngest years. In fact, Halloween can be truly frightening to your little ones, so before you head out to trick-or-treat with a child under five, and especially if yours is two or three, take a toddler point of view.
Your young child is just now figuring out who they are and how they are separate from mommy and daddy. Likewise, as they figure out the world around them and how things work, they can’t distinguish real from pretend. Just about everything they see, touch or experience is real to their rapidly developing minds. Looking at Halloween through your toddler’s eyes makes it easier to understand why the holiday can create anxiety and overwhelm by throwing off your child’s sense of self, security and familiarity.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: Plan a simple, toddler-friendly celebration. Keep it low key and I assure you that you and your toddler will have more fun.
Follow your toddler’s lead. If they want to wear a costume, let them, but if they do not, that is okay, too. Toddlers live in the moment, so their opinion may change on a minute-to-minute basis. Your daughter may like to dress up around the house on any given day, but if she doesn’t want to put on a costume Halloween night, don’t push it. You can always try again next year, or even next week (just for fun!)
Let your child do as much or as little as he or she wants. One of my children at age two loved knocking on doors and couldn’t get enough. His brother, at five, was done after just a few apartments and then insisted on returning home. Both normal reactions.
Monitor your child. Signs that your child is overwhelmed can include getting overly wound up, withdrawing or melting down. Is she clinging more than usual? Sucking his thumb when you don’t expect it? Screeching for what appears to be ‘no reason’? These are all signs that your child could be worried or upset by all the Halloween stimulation. Stay close to them and plan to leave the festivities if it gets to be too much.
Masks: Masks can be confusing and even terrifying to your child. My simple advice is to avoid them. Toddlers cannot grasp that a mask is temporary. Imagine, for a moment, what a costume looks like from your toddler’s point of view—they think, I know I am Me. I know Mommy is mommy. I know Daddy is daddy. So what does it mean that I am now a dragon? Even more scary to them is that YOU could change. What does it mean that Mommy is a witch and that Daddy has claws and fangs? What seems to be simple fun to an adult can really confuse your child. Mommy dressed up like a rag doll may be funny to you, but not to your child who sees mommy as one person only—mommy. Masks make it even worse.
If your child does become frightened by someone wearing a mask, address their fears with reassurance. You might say, “That mask looks scary, but it can’t hurt you. It is not real, even though it scared you.” When you honor your child’s fearful feelings like this, they feel comforted that you will take care of them when they are scared.
Trick or Treat: Most young children, especially the itty-bitty ones, don’t do well going door to door, at all. If you plan to knock on doors, do some pre-planning. Pick a few friends’ houses to visit and go on the early side. Ask your friends to answer the door mask-free and to greet your child in a friendly manner. In addition, stay close even when your child is having fun. Being close can help head off meltdowns if they get overwhelmed. Some children enjoy being at the door with you to greet trick or treaters and may prefer this to going out. Be careful, though. One costume or mask can scare them and end their night!
Plan Alternative Celebrations. There are ways to celebrate with your young child that are friendly to their age. Many cities have a version of Boo at the Zoo, an afternoon of Halloween fun with the animals. Many local communities do parties for little ones or you can plan your own event with a few friends. For years, I got together with friends and their young children. Some children dressed in costume, others did not. The children played together, ate sweets and enjoyed the party. No stress, no pressure, and the adults could enjoy it, too.
Candy: The age old question is how to handle all the sugar. Keep in mind, the less doors knocked on, the less candy received. Some parents feel best with strict limits on candy (just be careful not to turn it into control battles). But for many of us, Halloween is an excuse to indulge. (For me that means Yorks or Mounds bars!) I suggest a middle ground of making it fun with limits. One way to do this is to try playing the “Pick 3” (or 4 or 5) game—choose three pieces of candy to eat now and the rest we will say goodnight to. When mine were younger, I did this and then over the course of the next week or so, I let them pick several pieces a day. They loved deciding on which ones to pick. After that, I declared, “Halloween is over,” and we’d say good-bye to the remainder of the candy. Usually they were done with it, too. I’d take it to my co-workers so that it was no longer in the house where my boys (or I) could sneak it. Out of sight is truly out of mind. Many dentist offices will happily “buy back” your candy in exchange for toys or other healthier treats.
Respect Bedtime: The best guarantee for Halloween good times is to get your child to bed on time. The over-excitement of Halloween plus a late bedtime is a recipe for behavioral disaster. This year, we turn back our clocks on Halloween night meaning your child will wake up earlier than usual on November 1st. Want to avoid that early awakening? Start moving your child’s bedtime AHEAD by 15 minutes every other night starting on Monday 10/26 and by October 31st when the clocks turn back, your child will be on the right schedule.
However you decide to celebrate on October 31st, keep it as light and low key as you can to maximize the toddler fun and create lasting family memories.
Photo credit: srietzke / Foter / CC” class=”redactor-linkify-object”>http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>CC BY-NC