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Tips for Parents to Take the Fright out of Halloween

Halloween, Halloween candy, children's health and safety

Tomorrow is Halloween, a yearly celebration on October 31 that includes wearing costumes and trick-or-treating. But for those with young children, some of the scariness of the night, such as evil-looking skeletons, ghosts, haunted houses, and zombies, may be too much fear and scare for what is supposed to be a fun evening. Here are some tips for bring back some good out of a holiday often associated with too much bad.

More than 70% of Americans (170 million) plan to partake in Halloween festivities, according to information by the National Retail Federation (NRF). Amazingly, even the shaky economy has not stopped us from spending big money on costumes, decorations, and candy. For example, this year the average person will spend $29 on costumes, versus $26.50 last year.

There are two schools of thought about Halloween. On the one side, the holiday is commonly thought to have pagan roots, originating from either the Roman feast of Pomona or the “festival of the dead” or from Samhain, a medieval Gaelic festival that is seen as a time when souls of the dead are brought over from the “Otherworld.” There is also the proposal that Halloween, or
“All Hallow’s Eve” is influenced by the Christian holy days of All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2 – a time for honoring saints and praying for the recently departed.

Unfortunately, thought, some feel that over the years, our previous costumes and home decorations have gone from the “fun” to becoming very, very scary. Zombies are popular today, with frightening face-painting and fake blood. A colleague described his popular trick-or-treating neighborhood as looking very much like a cemetery.

Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross, a marriage and family therapist, commented that “we do our best to shelter our kids from being exposed to graphic images of death or mutilation, but somehow, most of us put those restrictions aside on Halloween.” Perhaps this year, we should take steps, not to ban kids from celebrating, but to bring back the fun and positive of the season.

First, parents should be sensitive to how their children will respond to the different costumes and decorations their child will see. Of course, anxiety from scary images are easier to manage when the situations are predictable (such as in a dedicated Halloween store or in the Halloween section of a department store), but keep in mind that these images can be anywhere! My own child became panicky and horrified in a Lowe’s Home Improvement Store from a mechanical Grim Reaper sitting at the end of the grill aisle. If your child becomes overly fearful, validate his or her feelings but not the fear, says Sarnoff-Ross. Teach your child that these things are just pretend and that mom and dad are always around to keep them safe.

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Second, if you do go out for Halloween trick-or-treating, start off with familiar homes, such as those of neighbors and friends before venturing out to strangers. This may help your child with some of his or her anxiety. Remain positive and upbeat yourself, says Martin Antony, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Ryerson University. If your child sees your excessive fear about the images, he or she will likely follow with irrational feelings.

If your child simply does not want to partake in the festivities, do not force them. Here are some alternatives to making the holiday positive and fun:
• Search for churches, schools and community organizations that put on a Fall Festival on Halloween night, a “Trunk or Treat,” or a “Hallelujah Night” bonfire.
• Put on your own holiday party, but with a theme to keep the ghosts and goblin costumes away. Have guests dress as a favorite movie star, literary character, or animal. Keep the activities fun, such as having a pumpkin seed spitting contest, apple-bobbing, or have someone offer a hayride around the neighborhood.

Halloween can also be a good day to teach children about giving to others. UNICEF, which started a coin-collecting program on Halloween night, began back in 1950 and continues today, raising nearly $160 million over the years. UNICEF is part of the Global Movement for Children – a broad coalition dedicated to improving the life of every child. Have your kids collect coins from family, friends and neighbors and donate to UNICEF through their website or at a participating Coinstar Center.

Wish to help out some animals in need? National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative offers children a way to save lions, tigers and other vulnerable animals from extinction. Create your own collection box from resources available at NationalGeographic.com, dress up as your favorite Big Cat, and raise money for this important cause.

A great option for your excess trick-or-treat candy is Operation Gratitude. Dentists across the country are collecting candy in the days following Halloween so they can be sent to troops deployed overseas. You can also send your own donations directly to Operation Gratitude/CA Army National Guard, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys CA 91406. Attn: Rick Hernandez.

Have fun, but stay safe this Halloween!

US News, Halloween Spending Not Spooked by Shaky Economy, published October 25, 2012.
Daily Strength: Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross, “For Some Children, Halloween Scares Aren't Much Fun - They're Just Plain Scary!”, published online October 12, 2011
Ryerson University: Witches, Ghosts and Goblins – Oh My! Why Some Children Fear Halloween: Ryerson Expert, published October 18, 2012