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Title says it all. Our 3-year-old son is old enough to realize that something weird is happening around Oct 31st, but not really old enough to understand complex explanations. Like most kids this age, he's afraid of various semi-random things (monsters, bouncy castles, hot air balloons...) and has a poor understanding of the difference between real and make-believe. For example, we went into a party supplies shop to pick up some birthday party gear; needless to say it was packed full of Halloween stuff, and he completely panicked because there was a giant helium balloon of a grinning cartoon "ghost" inside.

True to my engineer nature, my style has been to explain that there's really no such thing as ghosts or monsters, they're just stories and toys. This isn't really cutting the mustard with him, because as far as he's concerned there really was a ghost in that shop.

My wife's preference is to not even bother with theory, and just frame things in practical ways he understands: "The ghost lives in the shop with his ghost friends. It doesn't like sunlight and it's not going to come to our home." This is a slippery slope I'd personally prefer not to go down, but it does seem a lot more effective.

Trick-or-treaters, though, we're not having much luck with. "They're kids in costumes, who collect candy in buckets" he can kinda-sorta grasp if it's preschoolers in Spiderman onesies, but teenagers in full-on zombie makeup, nope.

Thoughts?

  • When we make scary things fun, they're no so scary any more. So we have a big party and learn to not be scared and eat candy. – Andrew Lewis Oct 31 '14 at 19:58
  • I am guessing you are after the more cultural explanation, and not the eve of All Saints day? That is however, where it comes from. – Tim Nov 2 '14 at 12:47
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(What is it with toddlers and hot air balloons? Mine can't stand them either -- I think the floating blows his mind... what's holding it up in the air?!?)

We frame the holiday in terms of playing pretend: "you get to dress-up and pretend you are something else!" I try to only have mildly scary things around, and also teach him it can be fun to be a little bit scared. (Jumping out from behind a door and surprising somebody, after which everybody laughs, is a pretty benign introduction. Often it happens by accident, and then the toddler will follow me around for minutes yelling "BOO" and expecting me to go, "AAAH! Hahaha, you scared me.") This can be an introduction to the idea of why this holiday exists.

I actually agree with your wife's approach of geographically limiting the scary thing: The ghost lives in that store, but he never leaves his ship. Your son gets back a bit of a feeling of power, because he can walk out of there and make the ghost stay. I also encouraged my kids to talk back to the scary things. They were still frightened, but they had something they could do about it. We drive around and see a creepy witch decoration, and the kids create a witch-proof forcefield around the car. We're in a store and walk by a ghost, the kids deploy their ghost-proof shields and zap the ghost with their anti-ghost magic wands. With just one child, you may need to take the lead: "Oh, look at that ghost. He looks a little scary. I can keep us safe, though, I've got a MAGIC KEY THAT SCARES GHOSTS (pull out keychain). Go ahead, you zap him with it."

I don't tell my kids that something isn't actually scary, because I think it's unfair to make them feel alone and isolated on top of being afraid. There are always going to be scary things, and so I try to give my kids a way to respond and act instead of freeze. It's OK to be scared, and here are some ways they can be empowered. Plus, I'd rather they tell me when they're afraid of something instead of keeping it to themselves, so if real-life scary things happen they'll feel able to come to me.

But back to Halloween itself. If you decide to trick-or-treat, I have two main suggestions:

  • Keep it short. At that age, we took our kids around to maybe ten or twenty houses. Many of these were neighbors we knew at least in passing, so they knew his name and were cheerful and complimented his costume. That's enough time to get a taste of the experience without getting exhausted. Plus, not too much candy: he'll be completely overjoyed but you don't have a giant bag to deal with over many months.

  • Keep it early and local. Avoid times/place when teenagers (and even many tweens) are out in costume, since they tend to go for much scarier themes. If your neighborhood is like ours, age is correlated to hour: the toddlers go out first, elementary school kids are out for a while, and the teenagers are last (and sometimes almost absurdly late). So if you do decide to take him out, go early. (Similarly, don't have him answering the door with you later in the evening, when Spiderman and princesses have been replaced with ghouls and zombies.)

It can help to have an older sibling who's dressing up to help provide context and an example. However, short of a time machine and some interesting paradoxes, you probably can't manage that this year :)

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    I loved your answer Erica. I want to give you +10 vote up :) but not sure how to do. Which button do we need to press? – Tiffany Oct 31 '14 at 12:32
  • Aw, thank you! :) The triangle arrow buttons above and below to big number at the top-left of an answer (up and down) are where you can vote. – Acire Oct 31 '14 at 12:36
  • +1 This is full of awesome advice, and extends way beyond just explaining Halloween. – Jason C Nov 2 '14 at 0:14
  • @Tiffany if you really want to give the answerer more than +10 points, you can start a bounty, then award it to the answer you like so much. It should be possible in two days after the question was asked (so not today yet, but I guess some time tomorrow). – Ruslan Nov 2 '14 at 9:25
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My oldest child was 4 the first time she went trick or treating. When she was 3, she stayed in with me and gave out the candy. She got the leftovers from the bowl when it is over. That was enough excitement for her and got her used to the idea. The next year, she went out with her younger brother (with Dad as escort).

I never took my kids into those specialty Halloween stores, which are too scary even for me. It's enough to say, "Kids dress up; get candy." They usually take things in stride at that age.

Children tend not to go with the scariness of H'een, I've noticed. They usually dress up as something they would like to be -- a princess or a superhero.

  • When my daughter was four I looked through a pattern catalog at the fabric store with her to get some costume ideas. She chose "witch" -- but she was looking at a picture of a purple, sparkly, big-poofy-dress witch :D – Acire Oct 31 '14 at 18:22
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my style has been to explain that there's really no such thing as ghosts or monsters, they're just stories and toys

I think you're already doing it right.

My wife's preference is to not even bother with theory, and just frame things in practical ways he understands: "The ghost lives in the shop with his ghost friends. It doesn't like sunlight and it's not going to come to our home."

The two of you need to get your stories straight - you need to agree an approach with each other. Just for you to flatly contradict one another is going to confuse him and potentially make things more scary.

It might help for you to talk it over with him in more detail. You might have to repeat the same message in different forms over a bunch of different occasions:

  • "Some people like to tell scary stories, but that doesn't mean they're real."

  • "If you don't like that kind of story, I won't tell you any of them. That's ok."

  • "That's just pretend. Those people are dressing up to play a game."

  • "We're not afraid of pretend XYZ's, are we? Let's practise telling them to go away: GO AWAY, SILLY POO-POO XYZ's!"

As in that last example, you can combine your approach (they're just fiction) with your wife's approach (within-story reasons why the scary things aren't a threat) by making up stories together with him - and emphasising that you're making up a story together and it's all just pretend and so on - and in the stories the ghosts are totally un-threatening: you and him together call them rude names (toilet humour is good here, because humour will make him less scared, and nothing is more humorous to a 3-year-old than bodily functions) and they run away scared of you. And then emphasising at the end that the whole thing is just a silly story and they don't exist and aren't real. That kind of approach can help him find the courage to not-be-scared even of things which he knows aren't real.

We've found these useful:
- "Thomas & Friends" episode on Halloween (book and TV episode both available),
- Angelina's Halloween (be warned - extremely charming illustrations).

Draw out his fears.

Encourage him to talk about the imaginary monster and ask him to draw a picture of what he thinks the monster looks like. This way you respect his feelings and convey that you empathize with him.

Don't chase the monster away.

An oft-advised fearbuster is for parent and child to walk into the bedroom, look under the bed and in the closet, and "chase the monster out of the bedroom." Not only is this downright dishonest, but all it does is reinforce to your child that there really is a monster in his bedroom—which might make matters worse.

Tell the truth.

Emphasize to your child that monsters are only pretend characters on TV or in storybooks. It's a parent's job to help her child separate real from imaginary characters.

http://www.parenting.com/article/ask-dr-sears-mashing-monster-fears

If trick-or-treaters are a problem, I'd just send him off to bed early so he doesn't see them. Or if they come round too early for that, sit with him (in a room upstairs or at the back of the house) for an extra buch of stories or a movie or some kind of positive-attention activity you can do together.


if they're not real, why are you telling them to go away?

:)

I know it sounds contradictory, but you really can marry up the two approaches.

To explain in a bit more detail: Telling them the truth (that the ghosts don't exist) is great intellectually but doesn't really deal with the emotional side of the issue.

So if you just say "they're not real" and then end the conversation at that - then it leaves the kid (potentially) still feeling scared. Even if they've believed you and they have truly internalised the fact that ghosts aren't real, they can still feel scared of them - in spite of knowing that they're not real.

Actually this is true of adults as well - plenty of adults feel scared of things which (intellectually) they know are really no threat to them at all - e.g. horror movies. With adults of course it's the "willing suspension of disbelief", but children (particularly small children) just have less control over their feelings in relation to stories. But it's not really very different from an adult identifying with the hero and disliking the villain in an action movie. Stories wouldn't be any fun if we weren't capable of responding emotionally to things which we know aren't real.

  • The disadvantage of the truth-telling approach is that it doesn't allow you to really acknowledge the child's fear and allow them to work through it with you.
  • The disadvantage of the "I'll chase away the ghost" approach is that it can give the message that ghosts are real.

Combining the two: while sticking with the fact that ghosts aren't real - you can allow the child to work through their fears by telling them stories in which the ghosts are ridiculous (and not scary at all) and the child and the parent work together to scare or humiliate the ghosts.

Your comment was that this seems inconsistent: if they're not real, then why are we telling them to go away?

The answer is that we're not "telling them to go away" in real life, as a technique for dealing with a real-life danger (in the way that crossing the road at the pedestrian crossing is a technique for dealing with the real-life danger of traffic).

Rather, we're "telling them to go away" within a story (and being very clear that it is just a story) in which the imaginary, fictional ghosts are:
- unthreatening, and
- easily defeated by the child with a bit of help from mum/dad.
So that gives the child a chance to work through some of the emotional impact of the ghosts, which an un-elaborated "ghosts aren't real" doesn't give them the chance to do.

It also allows the child a chance to practise (with a parent) what they can say to themselves if (in the middle of the night) the ghosts start to seem real to them again.

  • Acknowledge the fear
  • Let them know it’s normal to have fears
  • Be reassuring
  • Be playful in your approach to managing fears
  • Try to empower the child through positive imaginings or fantasies
  • Create pleasant associations
  • Applaud bravery
  • In new situations remind them about how they managed to overcome a fear last time

"Toddler Fears", Parentline Australia

^ The bold sections there (emphasis mine) are what I'm talking about.

At any age, break the challenge into small steps, says Chanksy. She suggests tackling that big, dark cave of a closet by turning it into something fun and positive. "By creating a competing emotion," she says, "you help burn out the anxiety." Be creative, says Chansky: Go into the dark and read a book by flashlight. Make five goofy faces, and get out right away. Play 20 questions. This all gets your child into a different frame of mind. Practice often, for the best results.

"Childhood Fears and Anxieties", WebMD

This "creating a competing emotion" can work really well.

What I'm trying to say is that telling them the truth (ghosts not real) is necessary but not sufficient. The child needs to work through the emotional component of their fear, which doesn't just go away when they realise that the fear is not founded in fact.

One way to help them work through that emotion is to tell stories together with your child, in which:

  • positive emotions and associations (such as laughter and parental closeness and support) replace negative ones,
  • the child exerts control and dominance over the fictional object of their fear, e.g. by scaring it or calling it rude names.
  • 3
    "The two of you need to get your stories straight" - that's one reason why I'm asking. But TBH, you aren't keeping your stories straight either: ""We're not afraid of pretend XYZ's, are we? Let's practise telling them to go away" <- if they're not real, why are you telling them to go away? – lambshaanxy Nov 1 '14 at 3:07
  • :) Totally take your point. I'll expand my answer. – A E Nov 1 '14 at 17:48
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Three year olds are definitely old enough to understand 'real' versus 'imaginary/pretend'. My three year old has nightmares where a plane flies into his room fairly regularly; after the first few, I explained to him that it wasn't real, because a real plane can't fit in his room, and he clearly understands that now. Still has nightmares, but has a very short recovery period.

Additionally, 3 years old is when they begin creative play (making up stories, etc.), and Halloween is a perfect example of creative play. My son generally understands that people dressing up are, well, playing dress-up, and being creative. Doesn't stop it from being scary sometimes, but at least in his case it was a fairly short adjustment (at the pre-school halloween party, which included several adults dressed up).

As such, I think Halloween is a great time to talk about that difference. It's also been great to talk about why people decorate their houses, and why it's interesting to look at those decorations. I'd bet your three-year-old is capable of understanding even the teenagers with zombie makeup, if you explain why people do it. If his mother puts on (daily) makeup, then perhaps have her show him that process. It's not the same thing - but it is, sort of. Changing one's appearance.

All in all, kids even at 3 years old understand quite a bit more than most people expect. Explaining why people do what they do is important, and can lead to very interesting discussions.

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Our six year old daughter put on a Darth Vader costume, with mask, early in the month, and it completely freaked our two year old son out. She'd lift the mask up and he'd be fine, she'd put it down and he'd freak out again. We talked about how it was really her under there, and she was just pretending, but he had none of it. After a few minutes of this, we asked our daughter to remove the mask, and that was the end of that drama.

Until she put it on again the next night. Same routine, but perhaps a little less freaking out.

I don't really know how many nights this went on, one or two more maybe, but he finally figured it out and had no more issue with her wearing the mask.

It's been a few weeks since all that went down, and I fully expect him to get nervous or freak out if we come to a house that has some startling noise, or scary costume. But just keep repeating the same thing, your child will eventually get it.

I have no problem, by the way, of the dual approach taken by you and your wife. My daughter is well aware that the creepy things she sometimes fears in the night aren't real, and I always reinforce that when I come to console her, but then I chase the things away, and talk to her about how she would protect herself if some scary monster really did show up. I rarely have to spend more than 5 minutes getting her in a good place to go to sleep, and it rarely comes back up that night. It's been this way since she was your child's age. Tell them what's real, and then deal with the fear on its own terms.

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My toddler is much younger, but I still take similar approach of explaining things to him. I try to explain everything I can to him (at this stage, it's helping to expand his vocabulary and understand of language.) I always try to explain things to children in a context they can understand, without condescending to them because of their age.

You offered:

True to my engineer nature, my style has been to explain that there's really no such thing as ghosts or monsters, they're just stories and toys.

For sounds and objects that upset my son, I would word it this way:
You're okay. It's just a "balloon". Substitute "balloon" with whatever the issue is. It's a toy, it's a car/truck (loud noises).

If he remains agitated, I will try to remove us from the situation without emphasizing the source of agitation. Instead of "Okay, we'll get away from [that]" I'll try "Oh, do you see [that] over there? Let's go look at [that]". I ignore the object, because I've already explained it to him just like I would explain a normal object. Then use distraction. My disinterest in the [balloon] shows him that the [balloon] isn't something to perceive differently than other objects. By pointing out something else to him, I effectively change the subject and engage with him on his level.

Now, onto the main question:

Explaining the wide variety of costumes and Halloween stuff in 3-year old terms can be difficult, even more so if you're trying to explain too much. While we, as adults, understand that the costumes, many visitors to the house, and the candy-giving are all related to the overarching Halloween celebration, it's not necessary for a young child to grasp that gestalt in one go. I would explain it to him in steps as the situations present themselves:

  1. When buying candy to give out, explain "We're buying Halloween candy."
  2. When asking what Halloween is, explain it's a holiday, like Christmas/Birthday/anything he's familiar with, or just a special day.
  3. When handing out or receiving candy, occasionally comment on it being Halloween candy. "Here's your Halloween candy" "Say thank you for the Halloween candy"
  4. Relate the concepts of individual costumes into simplified generics, especially if your child is not familiar with the specific characters. Comic/movie/video game characters can all become "super heroes" like Superman or Spider-man.
  5. Explain what costumes/decorations are in terms of Halloween. "Halloween clothes." "Halloween costumes." "Halloween decorations." "Pumpkins for Halloween."

The trend in these points is repetition. If your desire is to teach a young child about such a big concept, it'll have to be done in many, many small doses. Frequently referring to Halloween-related stuff as "Halloween [stuff]" instead of just "[stuff]" helps the child to distinguish everyday [stuff] from this specific type of [stuff]. The same applies for other occasions: Birthday cake. Christmas presents. Play clothes.

Eventually (if not this year), the concept of Halloween in general will mesh as all the individual explanations come together.

Explaining all of this to your child is hypothetically easier if he's been exposed to more books, TV shows and movies. lEven G-rated movies have scary elements. Monster's University has monsters, Toy Story 3 has monster-like toys and aliens, Wall-E has robots. Additionally, many children's programs have Halloween-themed episodes where the characters dress up. My son can tell that Jake (the Neverland Pirate) is still Jake, even though in one episode he dressed as a werewolf, and in another he dressed as Peter Pan.

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