Whether you're the parent of teens or the grandparent of young kids, you may wonder how to celebrate Halloween these days. Should you ever just say no to trick or treating? Or should you embrace it wholeheartedly, even after your teens are car drivers? To find out, I talked with clinical psychologist Margret Nickels, director of the Center for Children and Families at the Erikson Institute, the highly regarded graduate school for child development. Excerpts:
What is it about Halloween that appeals to kids?
[It's] the idea of getting dressed up and trying on a different persona, maybe some wished for persona, like the princess, or whatever the favorite Disney character is that year. That becomes very relevant for children, starting at the age of 3. That's when they start to practice different roles. They sweep the floor like mommy, maybe even before 3. Little boys want to be fireman and policemen, stuff like that. These different characters that they could all of the sudden imagine being are very attractive.
Is the dress-up part of Halloween psychologically healthy?
It is psychologically healthy because it gives a child the opportunity to try on different roles. But the meaning of the roles is very important. The fireman is someone who keeps the community safe. A policeman gives young children the idea that they have more power of keeping the community safe. Being a little princess gives a girl the fantasy of being the most beautiful and the most special. It helps express a whole different range of different feelings.
So parents shouldn't push the idea of being witches or ghosts, then, because kids don't dream of being either one?
We have a lot of feelings that are related to a need for safety. We also have a lot of feelings where sometimes we know we're not little angels or princesses. We can be powerful, angry little witches.
But parents and grandparents shouldn't push a witch outfit, or any other get-up, on them?
Let the children, within reasonable limits, pick the costume that they like. I would say 100 percent of the time, it is something they want to express about themselves in their fantasy lives or something they want to try out for a period of time — turning into a princess, turning into a magician, turning into a super hero. Those are all very healthy self-expressions.
Should grandparents butt in if their grandkids are buying costumes online or in the Halloween store, and they think their choice is inappropriate?
I don't think so. It should be up to the parent and child.
Can kids be too little to trick or treat?
Parents need to gauge it very carefully. Some very young children...don't have a capacity to gauge what's normal and different. Some children are very sensitive to loud noises. Some children are sensitive to being in large crowds.
It can be scary?
It can be scary, or there can be sensory overload.
So don't assume kids want to trick or treat or dress up?
If they don't want to wear a mask, don't make them, even if it came with the costume. Take your child's lead in terms of how far they want to go. It is very intense.
What's your big advice for grandmothers and grandfathers?
The grandparents need to have the same understanding. For some children this is a wonderful opportunity to express themselves. For other children, things are so different, and they find it hard to manage. It may cause anxieties. The grandparents can maybe help them manage the anxiety, explain what the costumes are, explain that there are real people behind it, but also help the child decide what their comfort level is and talk to them about it.
Should kids stop trick or treating at a certain age?
I don't think there's any age range where trick or treating should be cut off. It depends on the community. What is the community's understanding of trick or treating? Then you want to adapt to the community values. Each family needs to have a conversation about what's the community standard. If teenagers do want to go, what is appropriate behavior? That needs to be done a few days in advance. "OK, if you go trick or treat, watch out for younger children, let younger children go first when the door is opened, don't crowd families with young children." Getting some candy every now and then might still be something teenagers enjoy. They're together. It's a chance to kind of be a kid again and have that be accepted.
What should parents and grandparents say to older kids about proper behavior?
For sure you want as a parent or grandparent to sit down together and say what your expectations are. No spraying that stuff, no going in too large groups. Make sure if you are in a group that you're considerate. Don't act too rowdy. Don't damage anything, of course. Don't get too loud and unruly.
What about decorating your house?
This is a family decision and should be thought through by the family and the whole neighborhood. If you're in a neighborhood that loves to show the spirit of Halloween, by all means participate.
Some people go all out with fake graveyards. Is that OK?
I really think that Halloween is about scary stuff, that's the point of the tradition.
It's not bad for kids?
It's the parent's responsibility to gauge what they want to expose their child to. [For kids who seem afraid], don't go to the graveyard house — just like don't go to movies that might frighten your child. If your children are scared of pirates, don't take them to "Pirates of the Caribbean." If they're scared of graveyards, don't take them. Or if they're a little nervous, you can explain what this event is about. I don't think you can solve some of these issues of how different children might react by general rules. That's where the parents and grandparents come in to sit down and say, "What do I know about my child and my grandchild, and how can I support them having a good experience without overwhelming them?"
So maybe take littler kids on a trick-or-treating route that bypasses the graveyard house?
What else should parents and grandparents do to make Halloween a positive experience for kids?
Talk with them. What do they know about Halloween? What was the experience last year? If there were any kind of glitches, how are you going to do things differently? For teenagers, give them the proper expectations.
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