Fright vs. Fun: 9 Rules for a Kid-Friendly Halloween

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Monsters and goblins and ghouls, oh my! Has the season of zombies and vampires become too over-the-top for young children? How can you make Halloween more about lighthearted hijinks than heart-stopping horror? Fright-fests can be good fun for grown-ups, but research by Rutgers University psychologist Cindy Dell-Clark suggests that this isn’t always the case for kids. “Halloween is a holiday where everything is inverted and turned upside-down,” she says. “With activities like trick-or-treat, basic things like the stranger danger rule are suspended.” For kids, crossing boundaries and cutting loose can be empowering, but also confusing. Every child is different, but here are some core guidelines to keep in mind as All Soul’s Night approaches.

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By Roberta Munoz

Has Halloween become too over-the-top for young children? How can you make Halloween more about lighthearted hijinks than heart-stopping horror? Fright-fests can be good fun for grown-ups, but Rutgers University psychologist Cindy Dell-Clark says this isn’t always the case for kids. “Halloween is a holiday where everything is inverted and turned upside-down,” she says. “With activities like trick-or-treat, basic things like the stranger danger rule are suspended.” For kids, crossing boundaries can be empowering, but also confusing. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as October 31 approaches.

Watch Yourself

Adults like to act like kids on Halloween, but don’t get carried away. When you put on a skeleton mask, carry a bloody ax, and jump out of a dark closet, the actual kids may not know what to think. Grown-ups need to remember that even though they feel like they’re 5 years old again ... they’re not. Keep your own behavior kid-friendly and age-appropriate.

Give Kids Control

Halloween activities should always give kids a chance to back out and a way to express themselves if things get too scary. “Haunted houses are the worst,” says Dell-Clark. “In a haunted house, a child has no control at all over what’s happening to them.” Instead, introduce young kids to Halloween imagery through cool decorations like dry ice or a creepy cauldron of witches’ brew.

Prohibit Pranking

Big brother jumping out of the closet with an ax in his head? Sounds way too intense for most tots! Make sure the big kids don’t use Halloween as an excuse to scare the pants off their little brothers and sisters. Let them have their fun at a separate time, or tide them over with spooktacular crafts while letting the little ones watch a fun Halloween flick.

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Prep for Trick-or-Treating

Safe, fun trick-or-treating requires a bit of forethought, so plan well in advance. Talk to other parents about their plans for the holiday, and arrange to trick-or-treat with a group who will be fun for your child. Make the rounds well before dark and finish the evening with an indoor get-together to chase away the willies!

Encourage Cute Costumes

Think Muppets, not monsters; go with Dora rather than Dracula. Use common sense and take costume cues from your child. Ask her what she wants to be on Halloween, and follow her lead with your own costume choice. Most children choose safe and familiar figures like their favorite superhero or a beloved movie character rather than gruesome ghouls or goblins.

Embrace Innocent Symbols

When decorating for a festive family function that won’t scare the littlest siblings, focus on familiar fall symbols, such as pumpkins, candy corn, and autumn leaves. If older kids complain, plan a separate activity that’s more entertaining for that age group, with all the cobwebs, pitchforks, and Dracula teeth they’ve come to know and love.

Be Aware of Dark Themes

Coffin-shaped candy and tombstone treats may seem like harmless Halloween fun, but they are still symbols of death and dying. Look at the whole of your child’s life before deciding what to expose to her. Has there been a recent death in the family? Has a pet passed away? You don’t have to discard all these symbols, but keep in mind what they could mean to your child.

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Monitor the Media

You can’t raise kids in a bubble, but you can stay alert to the media gore-fest that makes up a modern Halloween. Even kid-oriented TV networks can show holiday specials that veer into unnerving territory, so proceed with caution. If your kid is set on a frightfully fun movie night, avoid slasher flicks and nab a child-friendly Halloween classic, such as Casper or Hocus Pocus.

Gauge Your Child’s Mood

Keep an eye open to see if your kid isn’t enjoying her Halloween. A trembling lip and an attempt to fight back tears are obvious red flags, but even a general lack of enthusiasm probably means something is wrong. Ask her how she’s feeling in a private, one-on-one conversation to avoid embarrassing her in front of her friends.

Exposure to scary stuff isn’t always bad. When children confront the things that frighten them, it helps them deal with trauma or irrational fears. But despite the popularity of demons and devils, kids are still kids. Developmental stages don’t change no matter how many games of Plants vs. Zombies your kid plays. If children are part of the mix, put their perspective front and center for a happy and healthy holiday.

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