Is Halloween Too Scary for Some Kids?

Is Halloween too scary? In my neighborhood Halloween is a joyful time. But it may not be so joyful for young children as we like to imagine.  4-5 min. read.

A preschool boy carves a jack-o-lantern.

Families in my neighborhood go all out to decorate. On Halloween we welcome the ghosts, ghouls, Dr. Who’s, Saitamas, Elsas, Charlie Browns, witches, and characters still being imagined as the day approaches. Even now, some parents are frantically working to help their youngest decide who they’ll pretend to be–especially frustrating when they insisted on the Spiderman costume in September and now refuse to put it on.  Teens are texting each other in an ongoing chat about what to wear and where to meet and whether a pillow case will be big enough to hold all the candy they anticipate.

At Halloween, my community celebrates its children and, in truth, the children of more than one neighboring community. Some parents dress up, too, making it a family parade. Our block and several others will be closed to traffic when Trick or Treating starts. Some of us sit out on our lawns together or on a porch where we can chat and enjoy the fun. In 2019, we gave out nearly 300 small bite-size candies and a whole bunch of pencils for those who don’t or can’t eat candy. On Halloween night the neighborhood is heaving with kids.

But can Halloween be too scary? I have noticed something troubling over the nearly 20 years I have lived here. The decorations are becoming more and more macabre. When my granddaughter was a preschooler, there were a few places we avoided. We steered clear of a terrifying witch whose face turned as she let out a chilling cackle–great fun for older kids.  Even in full daylight we didn’t go near a yard where a headless “corpse” dangled from a tree. For the most part, witches and ghosts were a pretty friendly bunch. But now, the Grim Reaper, a head swinging from a tree, a menacing skeleton, fun for some kids, but not appropriate for little ones.

Skeleton and Grim Reaper decorate a yard.

Scary fun for some, Terrifying for others

A hand reaches for you out of the grave. "Cool!" maybe if you're 10. Not so cool if you are 5 years old.

While scary images may be fun for older children,  frightening decorations can give young children nightmares for weeks. In a study of 6 and 7 year olds several years ago, Penn State Psychologist Cindy Dell Clark found that “most parents underestimate just how terrifying the holiday can be for young kids.”

If I had a preschooler or a child younger than about 6 or 7 years old, I’d be worried about them Trick-or-Treating in our neighborhood. Hands reaching up out of lawn graveyards, huge spiders crawling up the side of houses, skeletons with blazing eyes—there is hardly a block free of terrifying images. They are hard enough for young children to deal with in full daylight, much less at night.

Negotiating Halloween's Terrors

So how do you help young kids negotiate Halloween’s Terrors? Young children process information differently than adults—that should go without saying. But many adults imagine it means that if you water things down, you get child thinking. If you tell a young child there is no reason to be afraid, the fear will go away, right? Wrong. Child logic is different in kind.

It’s not that your child doesn’t trust you when you say there is nothing to be afraid of. This is the age when children are genuinely afraid there may be a tiger under the bed or a monster in the closet on the safest of nights. Saying it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. Neither does telling them they’re being silly. The line between imaginary and real isn’t fixed.  Wise parents are constantly saying things like, “This is pretending,” or “We can imagine that.” They provide opportunities for kids to dress up and talk about make believe.

The good news is that imagination can be a great help. I found over the years that Magic Tiger Repellent and/or Monster Repellent will rid any bedroom or closet of all but the best sort of tigers and monsters.

A child who is terrified by an image isn’t going to get over it by being desensitized on Halloween night. Pushing them up the sidewalk past miniature skulls with red lights blinking in the eye sockets or ringing the doorbell under a massive rope spider web with enormous “spiders” hovering overhead doesn’t desensitize. No amount of imagining or “magic” spray is going to erase the terror they feel—Come to think of it, walking up to a house with a stuffed spider as big as Shelob hovering over the door would keep me up nights, too.

Child Carving a Pumpkin
Little children may find that helping make a jack-o-lantern is a gooey and messy process, but it will help demystify the jack-o-lanterns they see as decorations. It is a great opportunity to talk about how you decide whether a pumpkin will end up looking happy, sad, scary, or even silly.

Sometimes children are frightened of things that seem friendly enough to us. For example, an enormous inflatable figure with a friendly smile can look as horrifying to young eyes as one with a scowl.

I remember how my older brother and I “helped” as my father carved an enormous pumpkin one Halloween. I was probably about 6-years old. My younger brother watched, too. Yet, when the pumpkin was set in the window with a candle glowing inside, he began crying. He was terrified. I remember turning the pumpkin around where we could see the glowing face, but he couldn’t.

Decorate. Carve pumpkins into jack-o-lantern. Give young children opportunities to explore Halloween decorations. Encourage them. And if a jack-o-lantern turns out to be look too scary, maybe you just turn it around.

Halloween Should Be Fun for Everyone

Halloween should be fun for everyone–those who come to the door for treats and those handing them out. Older kids want to enjoy Halloween. It’s more than just the candy–okay, so the candy is a big deal–but being together, laughing over the “terrifying” decorations, filling their pillowcases. It’s all part of the fun.

I wish that parents and older kids were more sensitive to younger children. But I doubt my worries and the angry posts I see on the neighborhood website will do any more than escalate ill will. But there are things that parents and caregivers can do.

To help make Halloween feel safe and fun for a younger child, I’d have a walk around the neighborhood beforehand, planning a route that takes us where the images are more friendly. I’d talk about costumes and masks that make us look different, but don’t change who we are. It’s pretend, like playing dress-up. I’d probably talk about how some decorations look scary and we won’t go to those places. Some people like to be scared. Maybe we don’t. Then, on Halloween, we’d go early, before it is too dark. If my child was reluctant to go to a particular door, I wouldn’t force it. Force feeding doesn’t make a  child more resilient to fear, it just scares the daylights out of them

Halloween Scarecrow Lady
A walk through your neighborhood before Trick or Treating will let you plan a safe route for young children. Stay away from places that are sure to frighten them.
Preschooler in Halloween Cat costume
Older Girl in Halloween costume
Whether older or younger, children should have fun planning their costume and wearing it. Older kids may seek out the scary houses and laugh with each other over their fears.

Finally, if your young child is terrified of Halloween images they see despite your best efforts, acknowledge their feelings. “That is scary looking” or “Sometimes things look really scary” and “Let’s go somewhere that isn’t scary,” will go a long way toward helping a child deal with fear. 

Don’t let anybody tell you that their four year loves terrifying images. Could be, but I wouldn’t count on it. Still, every child is different, something parents and caregivers of more than one sibling learn very quickly.

Of course I’m talking about the kinds of fears that all children experience. If your child seems to be excessively fearful, showing symptoms of anxiety–for example, repeated nightmares, wetting the bed–it is time to look for professional advice. It can make all the difference.

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