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Play Down Fears, Play Up Fun. How To Have a Toddler-Happy Halloween.

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Welcome back to Toddlerland where signs of Halloween are beginning to pop up everywhere.  You may see pumpkins, witches, and skeletons perched on porches, in yards and storefront windows. For me, these visuals bring back memories of cold Halloween nights, trick-or-treating in the Midwest with my brothers, and later sorting and eating candy until our tummies hurt. And where tweens and teens may love the wickedness of the holiday, your youngest ones may have a different reaction. By contrast, Halloween can be terrifying for two and three-year-olds, which is why adopting a toddler point of view is your best bet for preserving fun.
WHAT’S GOING ON: Your child is still figuring out how to be his or her own person separate from you and also, how to distinguish real from pretend. Nearly everything they look at, touch or experience is very real to them and their rapidly developing minds. Halloween, which encourages costumes and make-believe, can be fun, but it can also become confusing and easily throw off your child’s sense of self, security, and familiarity.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: The best way to handle the holiday is to let your child participate as little or as much as he or she feels comfortable, but I recommend erring on the side of simple and low key to ensure the most fun.
Costumes. Imagine, for a moment, what a costume looks like from your toddler’s point of view—they think, I know I am “me.”  What does it mean that I am now a pirate? Am I still me? What does it mean that Mommy is now a witch and that Daddy has a long, funny beard? Where are my mommy and daddy?! Even so-called ‘friendly’ costumes can prove worrisome to your child. While you may find these costumes adorable, your toddler might not enjoy dress-up as much. The toddler who loves dress up on most days may not want to participate on this particular day. My advice: follow your toddler’s lead. If he wants to wear a costume, let him, but if he doesn’t, let it go. If your child is frightened by your costume, consider taking it off. Where your child may love playing dress up on any given day when it is by his or her initiative, on Halloween night, when the circumstances are more charged, your child may refuse to wear it. Don’t push it. You can always try again next year, or even next week (just for fun!)

Masks. My advice on this one is to avoid them completely, or as best you can. This is because your toddler has no way to understand this is not real. What can be simple fun to an adult can really confuse, and even terrify your child because your toddler cannot grasp that a mask is temporary. They see their own face, or the face of the person wearing it, change before their eyes and sometimes disappear altogether. If your child gets frightened by someone wearing a mask, address their fears with calm reassurance. You might say, “That mask looks scary, but it can’t hurt you. It is not real, even though it scared you.” When you honor your child’s fearful feelings like this, they feel comforted that you will take care of them when they get scared. You won’t be able to avoid masks altogether if you go out on Halloween, so be aware of what your child’s reaction may be and consider talking about it ahead of time.
Trick or Treat. For many of us, recalling the trick or treat memories are the best part of Halloween. But most young children, especially the smallest ones, don’t do well going door to door, or after just a few houses and a bit of candy, they’re happy to call it a night. I suggest planning ahead to make this as fun as possible. If you plan to knock on doors, pick a few friends’ houses to visit and go on the early side. Ask your friends to answer the door mask-free. In addition, stay close even when your child is having fun, as fears or meltdowns can arise quickly and at the most unexpected times.  If you stay in, your youngest might enjoy being at the door with you to greet trick-or-treaters. Be cautious, though. One frightful costume or mask at the door can scare them and end their night! If you have older siblings who will want to trick or treat after your young one is done, consider joining forces with another family who has older children that they can tag along with when you need to take your younger ones home.
Monitor your child. Signs that your child is overwhelmed can include getting overly wound up and excited, withdrawing or going silent, or melting down. Is she clinging more than usual? Sucking his thumb when you don’t expect it? Screeching for what appears to be ‘no reason’? These are all signs that your child could be worried or upset by all the Halloween stimulation. Stay close to them, reassure them that nothing will hurt them, and plan to leave the festivities if it gets to be too much. An early exit will make the time better for everyone.
Candy. The age-old question is how to handle all the sugar. Simply put, the fewer doors knocked on, the less candy received. Some parents feel best with strict limits on candy (just be careful not to turn it into a control battle). These are individual decisions. Truthfully, for many of us, Halloween is an excuse to indulge. I love Yorks and Mounds bars, which my teens share with me from their bags (and I always hope they get extras)! You could try taking a middle ground-- make it fun with limits. One way to do this is to try playing the "Pick 3" game—choose three pieces of candy to eat now and the rest we will say goodnight to. When mine were young, I did this and then over the course of the next week or so, I let them pick a piece or two a day. After that, I declared, “Halloween is over,” and we’d say goodbye to the remainder of the candy. I’d take it to my co-workers or to the neighborhood dentist, many of whom will happily “buy back” your candy in exchange for toys or other healthier treats.
Plan Alternative Toddler-Friendly Celebrations. There are ways to celebrate with your young child that are age appropriate and may be the most fun at this age. Many cities have a version of Boo at the Zoo, an afternoon of Halloween fun with the animals. Local communities often do parties for little ones or you can plan your own event with a few friends. For years, a group of us with young children had our own Halloween celebration at a friend’s house. Some children wore costumes, although many did not. The children played, ate sweets and enjoyed the party set up for toddlers. No stress, no pressure, and the adults could enjoy it, too.
Respect Bedtime.  The best guarantee for Halloween good times is to get your child to bed at a reasonable time. Start your party or trick or treating early enough so that bedtime happens close to usual. The over-excitement of Halloween plus a late bedtime is a recipe for a meltdown. And remember: soon after Halloween we will be turning clocks back one hour, meaning earlier morning sunlight. That happens on the night of Saturday, November 4th so start moving your child’s bedtime AHEAD by 15 minutes every other night starting on Sunday, October 29th and by November 5th when the clocks are back, your child will be on the right schedule.
How do you and you and your family celebrate Halloween? I’d love to hear about it. Share it with me on Facebook or Twitter.

For more toddler insight, visit HOW TODDLERS THRIVE and feel free to share what you've read here with other parents on the playground!

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