When Make-Believe Causes Real Fears
While Halloween can be fun for children, it can also be confusing as they struggle to distinguish between what is "real" and what is "make believe." For some children, this confusion can interfere with their normal functioning by causing intense fear, difficulty sleeping and nightmares.
According to Jennifer Kittler, Ph.D., a psychologist at Rhode Island's Bradley Hospital, the nation's first psychiatric hospital for kids, "children gradually develop the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Some can make distinctions between 'real' and 'make believe' as early as age 3 or 4, but many children still become confused about this up through the early grade school years."
Parents can help their children make the distinction between reality and fantasy, Kittler says. "Talk to children about the difference and explain that movies and TV shows contain actors who are pretending, just like kids pretend when they play."
Provide examples of things that are real (cars and houses) and things that are not real (monsters and dragons), she continues. "Explain that Halloween is a time for people to have fun by dressing up and pretending."
To help toddlers and preschoolers not be fearful, Kittler suggests that parents try on costumes for their children, showing that they are still their "real selves" underneath the costume or mask.
"Put on and take off a somewhat scary, but not graphic or gory, mask several times to show a young child how the mask works," she says. Let the child practice putting on the mask to learn that the people underneath masks and costumes are familiar and not frightening."
When it comes to Halloween movies and activities, "parents can rely to some extent on movie ratings and age guidelines provided by some haunted houses to determine what is appropriate," Kittler says, "but they should use their child's temperament and behavior as the ultimate guide."
"Children who enjoy novelty and stimulation (like amusement park rides and meeting new people) and who are not typically fearful or easily overwhelmed are more likely to enjoy scary movies and haunted houses than those who tend to be fearful of new situations or slow to warm up to people," Kittler says.
Masks are the part of Halloween costumes that young children find the most frightening. Have trick-or-treaters remove their masks and then allow a fearful child to view costumes and dispense candy. He or she is less likely to be frightened.
She recommends parents wait for the child to express interest in seeing a scary movie or visiting a haunted house, and then being alert for signs of anxiety - including asking a lot of questions about whether it is "safe" or "real," appearing frightened or acting clingy both before and during the experience.
Children should not be forced into participation in Halloween activities to "get over" their fears, Kittler warns. "Unlike fears of everyday experiences that may interfere with functioning, such as being afraid of dogs or heights, being afraid of haunted houses and horror movies is normal; those things are supposed to be scary."
"The important factor in determining whether a child's fear is something to be concerned about is whether the child's fearfulness interferes with his or her functioning or causes him or her a great deal of distress, like having frequent nightmares or dreading the week of Halloween," Kittler says. Such serious fears merit a discussion with your child, and possibly your pediatrician or a mental health-care provider.
If children do express interest in scary Halloween activities, it's important for parents to be sure that they are really doing so because they think it will be fun and exciting, not because they feel pressured to do so by older siblings or same-age peers.
Kittler urges parents to prepare children for what they are likely to see and experience, and to remind them that the characters and events are not real and are meant to be fun, entertaining and a little scary. Finally, she says, "let children know that it's OK to ask to leave if they do not like it."
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