Halloween is just a great holiday! There’s none of the usual holiday pressure of getting together with the family, and as an adult you can chose to completely ignore the day if you like. When the scary movies take over cable, we can always just watch Netflix, and if we forget to buy candy we can just turn off the porch light and pretend nobody’s home. It’s not so easy for kids, though, because Halloween is a big deal in kid world, and all that spooky creepy stuff that’s supposed to be in good fun can end up being genuinely frightening for some children. Even kids who are usually happy-go-lucky can suddenly become overwhelmed by a fear, changing a fun family day to a masterpiece of meltdown.

It can be rough when your kid freaks out, especially when it’s over something that seem totally ridiculous to our adult brains (Honey- the candy apple is not filled with magical evil that will destroy the world- I promise). The thing is, you have to remember that for the kid- the fear is completely real.

Children’s’ minds work differently than our, and even though they can use logic, and be a wiz at figuring things out, the world of fantasy is equally as real to them. Childhood theorist Piaget referred to this as “magical thinking”- that for a child if something happens in her mind, to some degree the idea exists in reality. As adults, we sometime forget this sensation, but it’s just part of normal brain development for children.

It’s also pretty common for children ages 2-10 to experience anxiety and worry over things that seem just a part of daily life for the rest of us. My daughter used to be terrified of fire alarms. Not actual fire- but the alarms. Grandma used to remove all smoke detectors from the walls and take out the batteries whenever we came over. It was absurd, it was frustrating, but it was also perfectly normal.

As adults, we talk about childhood as being a wonderful, carefree time, but truthfully there’s a lot of stress in growing up. As a child, you are constantly being asked to do things that you have literally never done before- and you don’t have the benefit of being exactly sure where your areas of competence lie. Sure, you have lots of people around who care for you and keep you safe, but the flip side of knowing this is also knowing that you need those people because as a child you are unable to take care of yourself. If you think about it, that’s really freaky! Kids don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this grim reality, but the strain of it still is there. The unspoken awareness of their own vulnerability shows up in fear of fire alarms and hysterics when the nice next-door-neighbor comes to the door for treat-or-treaters wearing a clown wig.

So what can we do, other than sigh and mutter the eternal parental mantra “This is normal, he will grow out of it”?

beat the halloween creeps: how to help your kids get over the hump of anxiety and/or paralyzing fear

First, stop trying to talk them out of it. When you try to persuade a child that his fear is illogical while he is in the middle of that fear, you end up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Actually, you might end up freaking out the kid more. Can you imagine how terrifying it would be if you knew that there was grave danger and you tried to warn the people in charge and nobody believed you? I think I’ve seen a movie or two (or fifty) with that chilling plot line. Instead, take a minute to really listen to what, exactly, is frightening. Listen carefully and calmly, then repeat her worry and her feeling back to her- something like “Okay, I can see that you are really scarred right now because that man’s mask really looked like a wolf, is that right?”

Once your kid knows that you hear her, spend another moment to make sure that you understand all of the worry. Do you think it’s a real wolf now? Are you worried that he might turn into a wolf and we won’t notice? Are you worried that there will be other frightening masks that will surprise you? This is you giving your child voice. She might not be able to say exactly what her worry is; only that she is freaked out. By offering suggestions about what her fear might be, you are modeling for her how to say her fear aloud. Some parents worry that doing this will give a child more things to be worried about, but more often than not this action not only will calm the child down in the moment, but it also will teach her how to talk about her fears and worries in the future.

Here’s the deal – –  FDR was really onto something with that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” thing. Once a kid gets freaked out about something, often she begins to worry that it will happen again. For a split second she was terrified past all sense of reality and lost all feeling of security. Doesn’t it make sense that she is hesitate to keep going, knowing that she might have that same experience again? Helping her to understand that she’s not scared of the mask (of fire alarm, or bug, or whatever), but is scarred of being scarred is a game changer.

Once the real fear is uncovered, then you can start to talk about it. Once technique many behavioral psychologist use is to “externalize the feeling.” That means talking about “the fear” or “the worry” instead of saying “your fear.” This lets the child begin to think of the feeling as something that is separate from her, and therefore, something that can be removed. You can say things like “What can we do to help make the worry go away?” or “What could you say to that fear to make it stop talking to you?” You can offer suggestions, but sometimes kids can do a great job of being able to find their own coping mechanisms to deal with fear. Sometimes it’s helpful if you can give your child an example of a time when you felt scared of something, and what you did to overcome the fear.

Personally, I have an irrational fear of snakes (ridiculous, I know- but they freak me out). Last summer we visited a nature center and sure enough, a lovely teenage volunteer came wandering over to us with a big smile and a snake wrapped around her arm. Now, my kids are well aware of my anti-snake stance, and love to make fun of me about it. They were totally surprised when I said that I was going to touch the snake- even though I was kind of spazing out having to be even a few feet away from the dang thing. I held their hands, and talked though what I was thinking (I know the snake isn’t going to hurt me, I just feel worried about it, but my worry is just a feeling and not something real.) I will not lie- I hated every moment of it. And I really petted the thing too, not just a one finger poke. I shudder just thinking about it.

But – – now when I have that moment when my kids get scared — it’s great to be able to say “I know you feel scared right now, but that’s just a feeling. You held my hand when I touched the snake- now I’m going to help you get past this fear.”