(In this post when I talk about our children who came from a scary place, I am including those who were neglected or abandoned. Although they weren’t abused or frightened by some larger person, their experience was extremely fearful for a child.)
I’m not a fan of fear. In college you would have thought differently. The movie Fear was released when I was in college, and it was played numerous times in my dorm. I read books that made me think every noise was an intruder coming to take my life. I went to the best haunted houses in the Phoenix area. It was a phase, a very brief phase. I no longer like haunted, scary, or spooky.
We all know that Halloween can be filled with some frightful stuff, some people thrive on it, some love scaring others, or being spooked themselves. But what happens when our children who’ve come from some really scary places meet bloody, spooky, skeletons? It doesn’t help them.
Our children who’ve been through trauma have logged their fears and concerns in their brain. In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel writes,
“What’s crucial to understand about implicit memory – especially when it comes to our kids and their fears and frustrations – is that implicit memories cause us to form expectations about the way the world works, based on our previous experiences.”
Because our children have previous experiences that were scary and worrisome, they are basing their view of the world through that lens. So, what happens when a teenager with a gory mask steps in front of them during trick-or-treating? No matter how much we’ve talked, saying, “You’ll see scary things, masks, statues, but it’s all pretend. A kid is wearing that costume,” our child will be frightened.
In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes,
“…If the incoming information is initially unfamiliar, new, or strange, the brain instantly begins a stress response. How extensively these stress systems are activated is related to how threatening the situation appears. It’s important to understand that our default is set at suspicion, not acceptance. At a minimum, when faced with a new and unknown pattern of activity, we become more alert.” (Emphasis is mine.)
That section about our default being “set at suspicion” is referring to people who have not necessarily experienced trauma. How much more will our child who has definable reasons to fear and suspect respond to the unfamiliar, strange, or in this case, scary? They will become frightened.
When I was of trick-or-treating age, the tricks were much less terrifying. With the ever widening capabilities of plastic molds come scarier masks. Just today I saw one that ran a blood resembling substance under a clear plastic that was molded to a really creepy mask. That didn’t exist in my youth, but I was still plenty worried about whatever creature might poke its head from behind a bush, no matter how real it looked.
Our children store their fear in their brain in an area called the amygdala. When they’re frightened or anxious, their brain immediately brings up those stored memories (even if they can’t identify or name them, they know the feeling).
This can cause a number of reactions in our children. They can become defiant, or get an attitude as a way to protect themselves and be in charge of the situation.
They may question and try deciding for themselves if what they’re seeing or experiencing is safe or not, without listening to your counsel. Bruce Perry also writes, “Human beings fear what they don’t understand. The unknown scares us.” Once again, Perry is referring to a person who hasn’t experienced extended trauma.
Before our children have bonded with us and begin to trust us, they live in a fearful state, so scaring them more will add to what’s already happened. It won’t be funny, it won’t be easily forgotten, it will compound the problem.
So, can you do? Months before Halloween begins, displays are set out in stores with moving skeletons, our neighbors put out a full Headless Horseman display and more. Even when it’s not Hallow’s Eve, kids now wear hoodies that cover their faces with artwork of various evil designs. I’m not saying all this is wrong, I won’t share my opinion, but what I do know is that we need to protect our children as much as possible. Here are some ideas you can incorporate to take the HAUNT out of Halloween:
- Talk about what your kids might see surrounding Halloween, during trick-or-treating, or at school festivities. Remind them that it’s not real, and if a child or adult is wearing a costume that there is a person underneath. If there is a particular one you can’t get away from, say on a Subway, ask that person to show their face so your child won’t be as frightened.
- Avoid scary as much as possible. This can be difficult, I know. Last year we went to our downtown Farmer’s Market, a seven+ foot tall monster roamed the street, and this was in September! On Halloween night don’t go to the house that has a man in the yard with his head chopped off, just don’t go there. Walk far around scary yards and creepy costume covered people.
- Don’t let your child stare, try finding something to distract them. Payton has always honed in on the scary. She will stare at the store displays or people who are dressed in alarming costumes. We try to distract her, and sometimes it works, but we have to be aware of what she’s looking at.
- Find safer Halloween alternatives. When you go door to door, you don’t know who or what will come out to greet you with a bowl of eyeballs. Really not cool. You don’t know what will jump out from behind those bushes, and you don’t know when that eerie skeleton will get its groove on. Some malls offer a safe alternative, churches and schools do too.
I hope this helps take the HAUNT out of Halloween and helps you understand why fear isn’t good for our kids. May you have a safe and fun filled Halloween.
You can also check out this other post on making Halloween happier.
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