Q&A with Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz: Keep your family safe and happy this Halloween
By Kayla Redstone, Intern, Communications & Public Affairs
With Oct. 31 just around the corner, many families have started preparing for Halloween. From picking out a costume to nibbling on sweet treats, Halloween can be a fun and memorable family experience. While the focus of many parents is keeping their children safe on Halloween night, it is also important to recognize when children and teens are ready for each Halloween milestone. Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, Psychologist in the Outpatient Psychiatry Program at SickKids, has some tips to help families have a safe and anxiety-free Halloween.
How can parents prepare children for Halloween?
Most kids will be watching Halloween shows on television, reading stories or seeing decorations at school or in the neighbourhood, so they already know it’s coming up. This is a really good opportunity for parents to ask their child what they know about Halloween so they can gauge whether that information is accurate. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s normal for preschool-age children to be afraid of monsters. We expect masked figures, even clowns, to frighten them. So it’s a good idea to limit the kinds of exposures that very young children might have to very scary things.
Is there a “right” age to take a child out trick-or-treating for the first time?
Children of any age should not be pressured to go out trick-or-treating. It might be sufficient for little ones to go out while it’s still light outside, and they should always have an adult supervising them. The first reason is that the adult can maintain control over what’s happening, such as making sure they stay on the sidewalk. An adult can also remind them to use their manners and not run across people’s lawns, which might cause an angry neighbour to come out and scare them. An adult can provide support when a child decides not to approach a house that looks too scary. For children who don’t want to trick-or-treat, but who still want to participate, another option is to dress them up in a costume and have them help hand out candy at home. For babies, dressing them up and visiting a neighbour you know well is probably more than enough Halloween excitement.
When should children start watching spooky Halloween TV shows and movies?
One of the problems with watching scary shows at a young age is that kids don’t really have the ability to understand that death is final until age 9 or 10. When younger kids watch programs where people die and come back to life or go through dangerous situations unscathed, children tend to believe that death isn’t final. They may even begin to mimic or act out this violent behaviour through play. It’s important for parents monitor what’s going on and talk to the child about what they’re going to watch. Parents can decide whether that’s an appropriate choice for the child and let them know just because friends or an older sibling are watching it doesn’t mean they have to. They may even suggest some other less-scary Halloween programming instead.
How can parents help children move on from a traumatic Halloween scare?
This is something that should be dealt with right after the incident and not just before the next Halloween. Tell the child that many other people would be scared too, and then explain that sometimes adults or other children do things that scare kids, but they’re doing it because it’s Halloween and they think everyone would see it as fun. Ask the child why that event was scary and, depending on what their responses are, ask them if they thought they were in danger and give them some corrective feedback. Say something like, ‘Did mom or dad fight off the scary person or thing? No, because mom or dad knew you were safe.’ Then you can decide with the child what houses to visit, or sit back and watch what happens when other kids go to the houses before they approach. So the goal would be to eventually reintegrate them back into the experience.
How can parents deal with teens and the appropriateness of costumes?
Ask them what they want to wear and how that choice may be appropriate or inappropriate. Could it be hurtful to other people? Is that costume going to be too frightening? When someone answers the door, what kind of impression will they leave? Will this costume choice make them the subject of potential bullying? All those questions need to be considered. I think that it’s a parent’s place to tell a child when choices are unacceptable. That is an important dialogue for parents and teens to have.
When is it appropriate to let older kids and teens go to Halloween parties?
This is a decision specific to the individual child or teen, and their parents. Do you know the parents of the child hosting the party? Are the parents going to be home? Is there going to be any alcohol available? This is a good opportunity to discuss appropriate behaviour, parents’ expectations in terms of the time they’ll be home and how they will get home. Part of this is about trusting the child or teen and having set ground rules to begin with. Parents generally know whether or not their child is the type of individual who follows or does not follow the rules on a daily basis. If they are generally compliant kids, why shouldn’t they have a little fun?