Halloween is one of my three high holies. It goes Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day. If you mess with them, you mess with me.
In the spirit of all things creepy and spooky I though I would devote this month’s blogs to some of the eerie and terrifying things that I have encountered. First, though, in deference to those with a nervous disposition, a word on how to cope with those fears (and phobias next week!) that can run rampant with all the ghouls (and clowns, if you’re my mom) roaming the streets in the Fall.
Is it fear or phobia?
One of the themes for an upcoming book is helping children recognize the difference between fear (which is a valid response to a real tangible or perceived threat) and phobia (which is an exaggerated response and often occurs when no real threat is present). One is healthy, and a necessary part of our ability to detect dangerous situations. The other can be so paralyzing that just the anticipation of the object or event renders you incapacitated. The good news is both can be addressed to develop a healthy response.
I want to bring this up now, before I and the rest of the Halloween Hooligans break out our buckets of fake blood to create realistic blood spatter caused by our life-size chainsaw-wielding zombie slayer. Admittedly, my tableaus always run with a touch of hokey, so kids can recognize everything is obviously fake. I’ve yet to have someone dress up as Freddy or Jason and sit on the porch – if I lived in an area with older kids, maybe. But I remember places doing that as a kid, and the preschoolers especially ended up in tears.
As with every emotion, there are healthy and not so healthy ways to handle fear when it arises. If your child is passing a “scary house” and begins to freeze or get anxious, they can need help with such a big emotion. There are some easy ways to help:
- Validate their fear. From experience, the worst things to hear as a scared child are, “You’re just imagining it,” or a derisive “That’s not scary!”, or my personal favorite, “It’s all in your head.” You don’t feel better after that. You feel scared and alone, and anyone who’s seen a horror movie knows what happens when you’re ALONE. A simple, “Wow, that does sound/look/seem scary” is far better.
- Understand what’s scary. I’m going to be 40 years old this October. If something scares the bejeebus out of me, I can identify precisely why and how it is scaring me. Your average child on the street probably doesn’t have that skill yet. As caregivers, it is our job to help them unpack the suitcase of potential neuroses life keeps heaving at them. It calls for tact and empathy. Your child might correlate a gauze and wire ghost hanging in a tree and moving in the wind with a neighbor’s leaf blower and think this quite real spectre is moving and moaning and, therefore, quite alive and quite a real threat! Use reflective listening to help them see you understand their point. “Mommy, the wolfman’s all bloody ’cause he bites people and he’s going to bite me!” “If you think he’s going to bite you, that would be a scary feeling.”
- Keep the dialogue moving. Don’t let them get lost in the What-If Wood. It’s easy, even as adults, for us to spiral in what-ifs. But acknowledging a problem and moving forward is a big life skill. Depending on the nature and degree of the fear, this could mean a week’s worth of manageable steps, or it could mean a considerably longer course of baby steps. If you can make a plan to address the fear. This does not mean, in the case of the ghost, walking up to poke it and going, “See? It’s fake!” How many times has that preceded a bloody mess in a movie??? You might, say, try walking past the house holding hands earlier in the day (we all know how ghouls only come alive at night!), preferably with little wind and no yard equipment growling. Then you could arrange with the owner to walk past while they are taking the decoration out of the tree. If you child is feeling comfortable, maybe then the neighbor could show it’s fake.
- Educate. The less we understand something, the more inclined we are to feel fear. And this is true with everything, not just Halloween-season anxiety. Look for some age-appropriate articles or books. Watch videos of people putting on (and taking off!) scary make-up or prosthetics. Make your own decorations.
- Make a battleplan. Or call it a gameplan or whatever your child likes. I’m nuts about knights and used to fence, so with me it’s a battleplan. Sit down with your child and work out how they will cope when they start to feel scared. As someone with anxiety, I can tell you there are many approaches. I personally like having a grounding object, or person. My son has putty he likes to use when he feels scared. Depending on the situation, I will grab my pendants, or, if something like a movie freaks me out before sleep, I put a hand on my husband’s shoulder. I tell myself, “I know this is real. My breath is real. My heartbeat is real.” I focus on breathing and my heartrate, monitoring how keeping the first even and slow helps bring the second back to normal. For me, when faced with a fear, this brings me out of the sensation so that I am aware of my fear, but I am no longer surrounded by it.
- Realize this is not a linear progression. We are almost conditioned to expected that we begin with step 1, then go to step 2, and so on. Psychological progress doesn’t look like that. It’s more like playing Twister in the dark, with colors that keep changing, and eight spinners shouting out at once. It’s messy because life is messy. And our goal isn’t make everything neat and tidy. Our goal is to make a path by addressing what we can, when we can, and letting the rest go.