Halloween is creeping up… and ghosts and goblins are jumping out at us along with witches and vampires.
How do you help a child who is scared of everything make it through the Halloween season?
Young children can have a hard time determining what is real and what is imaginary. They honestly can’t differentiate between the two. Sometimes, it is not just the things they see, but rather what their little minds create, what is known as “magical thinking,” that can frighten them.
To put it in a regular-day, not Halloween related context, an example of a common “magical thought” can be seen when a child is scared to take a bath because she sees the water going down the drain and thinks she might be washed down with it. As adults we know this is impossible, but young children do not.
This same magical thinking causes children to believe that ghosts and goblins might come after them at night.
So, what can you do to help your child who is scared? Here are 5 suggestions:
1. Don’t try to minimize the fear. Be there to support your child. The fear is real to him. Hold his hand, walk on the other side of the street, whatever it takes to support him.
Identify what your child is afraid of. Once your child is able to verbalize her fear, or when you are able to figure it out if your child is unable to verbalize, you can help decrease the anxiety. Is your child scared of the many creepy things walking around and people running everywhere? Maybe she doesn’t like going up to strangers’ houses (not necessarily a bad thing on normal evenings!). Or is it that your child is scared of Halloween because it’s dark outside?
Help your child deal with his fear, don’t force him to eliminate the fear. Help your child understand what he is scared of and listen to why he is afraid. Help put the scary thing into perspective. Many things at Halloween were invented to let people have fun scaring each other.
Recognize signs of anxiety. Some obvious signs of anxiety include your child clinging to you with a vice grip hold you didn’t know her tiny hands could accomplish. Crying, shrieking or hiding behind you are also more obvious signs of anxiety. Short breaths, timid steps, and slowing down while walking towards something are slightly less obvious signs of anxiety. Appearing angry or more violent (hitting or kicking you or siblings/friends) are also possible signs of anxiety.
Be Flexible. Maybe Halloween is your most favorite holiday and you like to go all out…you might need to adjust a bit for a year or two. If your child is scared of the dark, find day time, child-friendly Halloween events (check out local malls or Trunk-or-Treats). If your child is scared of going to strangers’ houses, take him to a few of your neighbors’ houses and call it a night. For children who are scared of all of the creepy things that go Boo in the night, turn off your lights and go to a back room, or bedroom to play a game or cuddle and read stories.
In time, most children grow out of their Halloween anxiety. If you are willing to be patient, flexible and support them, they will be just fine. As they get older, children learn the difference between real and imaginary and many even find out that they enjoy being scared or being the one who scares someone else every now and then.
While the ultimate goal is to teach your child to self-soothe and to fall asleep easily on his own, getting there can be accomplished in many different ways. It’s important that you find a strategy that works for you (the parent) and then practice it.
My neighbor swears by the “Ferberizing” or the “Cry-it Out” method (Richard Ferber). It worked wonders for my neighbor, she loved it. I did not have the nerves of steel needed to let my daughters cry it out. The one time we tried it, every cell in my body was jumping up and down and screaming for me to go pick her up. For more than an hour.
The strategy that worked best for me was a special bedtime ritual (book, then lullabies and cuddling) and a sweet good night wish. Most of the time that worked just fine. However on a rough night, I would offer to sit in the room with my daughter after I tucked her in as she fell asleep (even as an infant when I wasn’t sure she totally understood what I was telling and offering her). One daughter liked to have me next to her -I did not need to cuddle after she was tucked in, but she wanted me nearby, leaning against her crib at first, then sitting on the end of her bed. My other daughter was fine if I sat across the room and read a book with my itty bitty flash lite (bonus!). It was just comforting for her to know I was there. On busy nights, I didn’t sit long, but would offer to check back in after a specified number of minutes ( sometimes 5 or 10 or 18 – the number was less important than the knowledge that I was coming back and not leaving her alone).
As my children got older, we used special night lights and sometimes special music to help them fall asleep. The music selections changed as they grew, but it was always calm and quiet. White noise, such as a fan, has also helped to calm children down or hide other noises in the house at bedtime.
Whatever method you choose. Give it a solid two to three weeks before you give up (unless every cell in your body is jumping up and down and screaming!). I love that even now, with my pre-teens, every once in a while I hear “Mommy, will you sit in my room for a little bit while I fall asleep?” I get to watch one of the loves of my life as she quietly rests in bed and occasionally I even get to read a few pages of a good book.
Ferber, Richard. (2006) Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems: New, Revised, and Expanded Edition Paperback. Touchstone
Pantley, Elizabeth. (2002) The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. McGraw-Hill Education.
Weissbluth, Marc. (1999) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Ballantine Books.
When your child feels loved (taken care of, understood and protected) she will be more likely to respond positively when you ask something of her. There is less of an argument when something needs to be done because there is a sense that you are not making a crazy or unreasonable request.
Does that mean that you will never have problems? No. Problems can still occur, especially if you spring something on your child or if you are interrupting something fun that he is focused on. However, if you have a solid connection with your child, hearing “It’s time to go – I can’t wait until we get to come back again” or “Time’s up – where shall we start the next time we come to the zoo?” should go over pretty well.
So, how does a parent connect with a child in a way that will strengthen their bond? There are many ways and they do not need to be expensive! In fact, some of the best bond-strengthening activities are FREE and don’t even take a lot of time. Here are four ways to strengthen your relationship with your child:
Special Time. Pick a date and time to spend with your child and schedule it in your calendar. Let your child see that this special time is on your calendar and do everything possible to keep your date. Sometimes things come up and you need to change the date or time, but let the child know when you will be re-scheduling your date and mark it on the calendar.
Turn off the TV, computer and, yes, even your phone. If someone does call and you need to (or accidentally, out of habit) answer the call – notice your child’s reaction. Typically you will see shoulders slump, a sad face and sometimes even tears. But don’t worry, you can work magic and fix that. Continue to watch your child as you tell the person on the phone that you can’t talk right now. Throw in the fact that you are having Special Time with your child if you can. For some kids, it’s as if you hung the moon in the sky when they hear you value this time with them and that it is not going to be taken by or given to others.
Let Your Child Lead. This can be a challenge for some parents, but if you are able to follow your child’s lead during your special time, she will feel respected, understood and loved. Let her choose, within reason, what the activity will be – or, if the activity is already chosen, follow her lead while you do the activity. If you are playing legos, let her decide what to build. If you are walking the dogs, let her decide which path to take. If you are playing school or cars, let her take the lead on the story line.
Be Curious About Your Child. Ask questions, learn about your child’s favorite things, friends he hangs out with, games he likes to play. You don’t want to question your child with the 3rd However, asking a few well thought out questions here or there, especially during Special Time or when you’re driving somewhere in the car, will provide some insight into your child’s life that you might not get otherwise.