Consider the following story as it relates to this week’s piece.
I’m a bit nervous for this year’s Halloween. I have three kids and my two oldest are more than excited, but my youngest is the one I’m worried about. Last Halloween was Nick’s first outing to a haunted house and trick-or-treating. He was only six years old, so I should’ve known better. I didn’t prepare him at all for the haunted house and he ran out screaming and crying a minute after entering. I felt so horrible seeing him terrified like that. For a few days, he was constantly remembering what had happened that night. He’s fine now but I really don’t want a repeat of that night. Is there anything I can do to better prepare him?
With Halloween fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about the emotions people have in response to this holiday. For those who enjoy a little thrill, there are opportunities to dress up as your favorite creature of nightmare, visit haunted houses, have the living daylights spooked out of you and have an excuse for eating a lot of chocolate. Am I the only one who gets excited about that last one?
However, for many people, Halloween is a terrifying holiday that casts a negative shadow on the entire fall season. With its focus on everything scary, it’s easy to understand how being spooked can lead to increased fears, the development of phobias and even trauma in sensitive and very young children.
Why are some people more sensitive than others when feeling scared? How do we know when the fear goes beyond normal and becomes a problem? More importantly, what can we do to make Halloween a chance for everyone to have fun?
Helping your kids deal with fears and anxiety, especially around this time of year, can be quite a challenge. Contact our psyhologists in Tampa to help them understand and manage this behavior.
Anxiety sensitivity is how strongly a person reacts to feeling anxious. In other words, it’s how scared you are of being anxious! A good analogy might be to think of sensitivity as the volume knob on your nervous system; things that scare most people only a little bit –because their volume is lower – can cause panic attacks in other people – whose volume is turned way up.Anxiety sensitivity is how strongly a person reacts to feeling anxious. Click To Tweet
When someone jumps out of the bushes and yells “Boo!”, anxiety sensitivity determines why some people jump and scream a little, while others run away screaming and crying. Both groups get scared, but one has the volume turned up higher than the other.
What is “Normal” Anxiety?
Although most people think anxiety is bad, we actually get anxious about good and bad things. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re terrified or thrilled! Think about roller coasters, horror movies or haunted houses. What do they have in common? People either love or avoid them. What’s interesting about all of these is that, whether you love or hate them, the feeling you get when you’re getting ready to ride, watch or enter one is the same – anxiety!Although most people think anxiety is bad, we actually get anxious about good and bad things. Click To Tweet
The only difference is that some people consider this feeling to be an intensely positive reminder that we’re alive, while others consider it to be an intensely negative reminder that existence is fragile. So the change from “normal” to “problematic” doesn’t happen because we’re anxious. It happens when we consider anxiety to always be a bad thing and avoid anything that makes us feel anxious.
Putting the “Wee!” in Halloween
So how do we help our sensitive kids strike a balance between feeling terrorized by every zombie or monster they see and avoiding everything scary (while missing out on the fun parts of Halloween)? The key to dealing with anxiety, particularly among young or sensitive children, is to help them learn to control their expectations. In other words, we want to gradually expose them to things that make them anxious while helping them learn that feeling this way doesn’t mean bad things will happen.
There are several specific things we can do to help our kids be successful in dealing with anxiety.
- Sleep – Make sure that your child gets plenty of it before the big night. This sounds obvious, but don’t be surprised if sleep is difficult for your child when they’re worrying about what might happen!
- Practice – Take your child to the store and let them see all of the scary costumes in well-lit aisles. Encourage them to try on different masks and look at themselves in the mirror, and to even watch you try on scary masks as well. Also, there’s nothing wrong with funny or ‘normal’ choices (Superman, doctor or nurse, rock stars, etc.); costumes don’t have to be scary! Finally, do a dry run of a trick-or-treating route, or visit where a Halloween party will be held. The more opportunities your child has to see ‘scary’ things in a safe place, the less of a negative impact they’ll have in the dark later on.
- Friends – There’s safety in numbers, so your child will usually feel less anxious when they have friends with them. More importantly, if your child is feeling anxious and doesn’t know what to do, it’s helpful and reassuring to see friends modeling “normal” behaviors and to talk about how scary a costume or decoration is.
- Support – Listen to your child; this is the most important and difficult thing for a parent to do. Remember, everyone gets anxious, so make sure you’re not giving your child the message that they shouldn’t feel that way or that “there’s nothing to be scared of”. When they tell you they’re anxious or scared, don’t try to fix it! Instead, be supportive. It’s more important for your child to know that they can tell you how they feel and be heard than for you to rescue them from feelings that everyone experiences.
Come By and Bring Your Costume!
At the end of the day, we’re all human. Scary stuff makes us want to stay in a safe place until it passes, and Halloween is all about scary stuff. Unfortunately, avoidance breeds more avoidance, which leads to bigger problems – and not just at Halloween! Even when we know what to do, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when we have a million other things going on every day. If you or your child needs help dealing with fears or anxiety, visit our licensed psychologists in Tampa today!