Costumes, parties, and sweet treats. Most kids love the excitement of Halloween and its slight thrill of spookiness, but kids who have experienced significant trauma may have mixed feelings about this shivery, scary holiday. For traumatized children, grotesque masks worn by strangers, noisy crowds, and being outside after dark can stir up stressful memories of past events and make them feel unsafe once again. But kids living with trauma are still kids. They want to dress up and rake in free goodies like everybody else. Parents, teachers, and other caring adults can make sure all kids can enjoy the holiday fun. These seven tips can help de-stress Halloween for kids who are coping with trauma.
Identify a child’s triggers. Triggers are sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and situations associated with past trauma. These triggers make a child feel like the trauma is happening again. Once triggers are identifiedfor example, people wearing masks, dark places, being left alone, and loud noisesthey can be avoided or eliminated from your child’s Halloween experience.
Create guidelines for suitable costumes. Limit costume choices to what is age-appropriate and avoids or eliminates identified triggers. Try to state the guidelines in positive rather than negative terms. For example: Have fun with face paint rather than wear a mask. Choose a superhero or princess instead of a scary character or monster. Create a comfy homemade costumes instead of purchasing a scratchy one.
Prepare and practice trick-or-treating. Ask two or three relatives, neighbors, or family friends to participate in an evening Halloween rehearsal before the big night. Coach participants about what kinds of treats to provide and how to interact with your child. Explain to your child that this is not the real Halloween but a practice, and that you will be with them during practice and on Halloween night. Help your child prepare a joke. Practice saying “Trick-or-treat,” “Please,” and “Thank you.” When your child is ready, don your costumes and conduct the trial run. On the real Halloween visit the practice homes first to make your child feel comfortable.
Get enough sleep and eat a good supper. Tiredness and hunger make children much more susceptible to trauma triggers. By putting kids to bed early each night during the week leading up to Halloween and by eating a good supper beforehand, you will strengthen their ability to handle the holiday stress.
Limit sugar intake. To avoid sugar highs and nasty crashes afterwards, set firm limits about how much candy can be eaten while trick-or-treating and each day after Halloween. You can also ask some people on your route to provide non-candy treats. The Teal Pumpkin Project, originally created so kids with food allergies could enjoy Halloween, offers many creative ideas that can be adapted to lower sugar intake and eliminate stressful situations.
Host a home party. For some kids, the stress of trick-or-treating may be too great to justify participation. If that’s the case, a home Halloween party may be a good option. Involve your children in the planning. This relieves stress by giving children a sense of control over what will happen. Have kids help make treats so they know what’s in them. Invite understanding, compassionate kids and adults with whom your child feels comfortable and safe. Provide costume guidelines so a guest’s appearance won’t bring back traumatic memories. Plan games that avoid or eliminate triggers. Finally, provide a quiet, calm spot in your house where your child can go to de-stress if needed.
Make a Plan B. If the thought of participating in Halloween festivities is too stressful for your traumatized child, move on to Plan B. Ask your children what they would like to do instead of trick-or-treatingperhaps baking snacks to munch while watching a favorite television show or movie, making a blanket tent and crawling under it to read a favorite book together, or playing dress up in the playhouse for the evening.
Kids who have experienced trauma have lost their sense of safety. But, they are still kids. Our job is to de-stress Halloween by providing a safe and secure environment where they can enjoy the holiday and create childhood memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Jolene Philo is a mom who raised a child who experienced medical trauma at birth. She’s the author of Does My Child Have PTSD: What To Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out. She and her students survived twenty-five Halloween parties during her teaching career. She blogs about childhood trauma and special needs parenting at DifferentDream.com.
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