It's October, which means that school has been in session for a while, the leaves are changing beautiful colors, the temperature is cooling, and the holidays seem to be just around the corner. October is also a month during which many children and families (and some grown-ups too) are getting ready for Halloween. They are shopping for costumes, candy, and decorations. Many kids like to do the decorating themselves, allowing them to express independence and creativity.
Some homes are decorated with spider webs and pumpkins. Others are grounds for mock cemeteries with RIP stones on the lawn or have elaborate haunted houses available. Some homes have human size fake bodies covered in blood or with missing body parts stationed in front. Many people will enjoy these decorations in the spirit of Halloween. Many will not.
What about people who suffer from anxiety? What about children who have nightmares at the first look of a scary cartoon? What about adults with a fear of dying, getting injured in some way, or getting lost where they can't escape? How are these individuals affected?
People with anxiety may experience Halloween differently. We are all individuals and can tolerate different types of stimuli. Some will have nightmares (yes, even grown-ups), want to avoid certain settings (trick or treating at certain houses, parties at school, scary movies), or become fearful.
This is important to remember as you decide how you will celebrate. If you are a parent and your child suffers from anxiety, you know your child best. If you are an adult, you know yourself best. It is OK and healthy to decide which festive activities to participate in.
There are many programs designed for children that are actually very scary. Many "kid friendly" shows and movies can present concepts that may be difficult to understand such as kidnapping, death, illness, witchcraft, and ghosts. As a parent it is important to be sure that you are permitting your child to experience material that is appropriate developmentally and emotionally.
Now, let's not be confused with exposure treatment for anxiety. A general rule of thumb is that when we avoid something we are anxious about, it reinforces our anxiety, making it more difficult to face that situation in the future. This is true. Within the context of Halloween, however, I believe it is OK to avoid certain stimuli that are not needed for healthy development or functioning. If your child cannot attend school during the season because he/she is afraid of the parties, decorations, or costumes, it is important for him/her to attend school anyway. This would be a case when anxiety can be inadvertently reinforced if the child is permitted to stay home. A talk with the teacher may help to modify classroom stimuli to make it safer for your child to be there. Working with your child on coping skills can also help him/her feel safe in school. If your child wants to avoid scary movies, then this is OK. Let them. One does not need to be exposed to scary or horror films in order to develop appropriately. One does, however, need to be educated. See the difference?
And for you grown-ups out there who love horror films and Halloween parties, have fun! For those of you who want to crawl into a hole instead of watching the "however many nights of Halloween" specials on TV, then read on. It is OK that you do not like this material. We all have different tastes, interests, and levels of tolerance. Decide how you would like the next few weeks to be for you and make a plan.
Trick or treating is another interesting activity for people with anxiety. Think about it. You dress up in a costume, walk up to a stranger's door (or hopefully someone you know and have determined is safe to trick or treat from), knock, wait for someone to answer, say "Trick or Treat," hold open your bag or bucket, say "thank you," walk away, and repeat. Also, you have to stay with your friends and family, possibly walk a long distance in unusual clothing, and accept whatever treat has been given to you. Not such a simple process, right? Trick or treating can be a great way to practice social skills, follow a routine, and be exposed to new and unpredictable situations. However, how important a life skill is it to knock on people's doors and ask for treats? You decide.
Consider all of this information as you decide, either for yourself or your children, how to participate in Halloween. You can choose the specific activities to join, consumes to wear, stores to shop in, parties to attend, houses to trick or treat at, movies to watch, or candy to eat. Utilizing your power to choose is a great skill to practice for healthy development and functioning.
So, what is Halloween for you? A good treat or a bad trick?