From ghosts to witches, monsters and skeletons, front porches and storefront windows everywhere tell us that something spooky is in the air.

Halloween can be a lot of ghoulish fun, but it can be truly frightening to your little ones. Your young child is just now figuring out who they are and how they are separate from their parents. 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 them. So before you head out to trick-or-treat with a child under 5-years-old, keep their perspective in mind.

Here are seven ways to plan a simple, toddler-friendly Halloween:

1. 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 little may like to dress up around the house on any given day, but if they don’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 they want. One of my children (aged 2) loved knocking on doors and couldn’t get enough. His brother, 5 years old, was done after just a few apartments and then insisted on returning home. Both were normal reactions.

2. Monitor your child.

Signs that your child is overwhelmed can include getting overly wound up, withdrawing or melting down. Are they clinging more than usual? Sucking their 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.

3. Avoid masks.

Masks can be confusing and even terrifying to your child. 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. 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.

If your child becomes 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, but I know 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.

4. Pre-plan trick-or-treating.

Most young children, especially the itty-bitty ones, don’t do well going door to door, at all. If you decide to trick-or-treat, pick a few 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.

5. Plan alternative celebrations.

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.

6. Limit candy.

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″ game—choose three pieces of candy to eat now and put away the rest. 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 goodbye to the remainder of the candy. Usually they were done with it, too. Some dentist offices will even “buy back” your candy in exchange for toys or other healthier treats.

7. Respect bedtime.

The over-excitement of Halloween plus a late bedtime can be a recipe for behavioral disaster. If you start celebrating early, you can try to follow their normal bedtime routine to minimize too much change at bedtime. Also, keep a noise machine or fan in their room to minimize the sound of trick-or-treaters outside.

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.

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