Halloween hits differently when you're a parent. Once you actually got to pick out your costume; now you're trick-or-treating while dressed as the fourth-best member of Paw Patrol. And who needs Michael Myers when you've got a 3-foot-tall unicorn raining down terror because you dared to sneak a fun-size Snickers out of their plastic pumpkin? Or maybe it's a teary third-grader, and not a murderous clown, sneaking into your bed at night because they're spooked by your neighbor's skeleton-littered yard. It might even be you tossing and turning on account of finally agreeing to let your tween celebrate with her friends — and they're all planning to dress as "sexy" devils.
If you find these tricky parenting decisions harder to navigate than a scary-as-hell haunted house, fear not. We've recruited parenting experts to offer guidance on dealing with any number of Halloween-centric conflicts, from toddler tantrums to TP'ing teens.
Given their early bedtimes and government dietary guidelines advising against introducing added sugars to children under the age of 2 — not to mention concerns about certain types of candy being a choking hazard — most babies' Halloween plans basically just amount to being dressed as a pumpkin. From age 2 on, however, they're likely to have more awareness of and interest in spooky season, particularly when it comes to getting free candy just for dressing up as Bluey and ringing a doorbell.
But how best to handle giving a toddler a trick-or-treating experience without it spiraling into a standoff over Skittles or a sugar-crazed, sleep-deprived meltdown? Yahoo Life turned to Deena Margolin and Kristin Gallant, the founders of the toddler parenting resource Big Little Feelings, for tips.
"If you know us, you know we’re big fans of the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time you’re doing the whole boundaries/patience/vegetables/consistent bedtime thing, and 20% of the time you’re giving yourself a well-deserved, guilt-free break," says Gallant.
That means parents who normally have their kids in bed by 7 shouldn't beat themselves up about breaking the rules for Halloween (which this year — gasp! — falls on a school night). Margolin suggests gradually pushing back a toddler's bedtime a few days before Halloween to avoid a "drastic change" on the night itself.
"Or you can just accept that sometimes holidays will disrupt schedules a bit, and that's absolutely OK," the mom of two adds.
Another option is to seek out a trunk or treat or another early afternoon event that takes place well before bedtime. Either way, expect those little ones to come home with plastic buckets laden with lollipops, Tootsie Rolls and the like. Parents should give their child's bounty a once-over so they can pick out anything questionable (including any obvious choking hazards like a hard candy or candy bars that might trigger an allergic reaction). Other than that, the Big Little Feelings team recommends not making candy a big deal.
"Repeat after us: Don’t. Make. Candy. Special," says Gallant. "Making it special — whether it’s describing it as a divine, rare treat or talking about it negatively, as the 'bad-for-you' stuff — instantly captures your toddler’s attention and makes the candy feel like something they NEED to have."
To demystify sweets, she and Margolin suggest serving a small, "toddler-sized" portion of candy (or other sugary treat) along with the rest of their meal. That way, it's seen as part of dinner, versus a special reward or food that has baggage attached.
What about that post-trick-or-treat binge every kid wants to have the second they get home? Margolin says it's fine to let kids indulge in a bit more candy than they might ordinarily have — it's a special occasion, after all. There are ways, however, that parents can keep it in check.
"On Halloween night, they might be extra excited about the big bucket of candy they just collected," she notes, adding that setting a timer can help toddlers wrap up their feasting without a big blowout. "In two minutes, it's time to get out of our costumes, put the candy away and take a bath. Bye-bye candy! See you tomorrow! Can you push the timer?' Giving them age-appropriate power makes them feel a part of the process, and that can seriously help prevent meltdowns and tantrums."
Because toddlers shouldn't be eating unsupervised, parents will want to keep any candy somewhere safe and out of reach, like the pantry. After the holiday, candy can be doled out, in small portions, as usual at mealtime. And if a parent is ever concerned about candy consumption, Margolin and Gallant says it's best to get guidance from their child's pediatrician or dentist.
Of course, it may not be candy that's overwhelming your kid. This time of year, it's pretty impossible to venture out anywhere — preschool, the grocery store, the dentist's office, the mailbox — without being confronted by spooky Halloween decorations, from the playful (inflatable Minion vampires) to the terrifying (12-foot skeletons). It's perfectly natural for a 3-year-old (or heck, a 30-year-old) to be scared.
Margolin and Gallant recommend handling those fears like you might an upcoming doctor's visit or flight: by prepping ahead. Because young children often get upset when they're in a new situation or aren't sure what to expect, walking them through different scenarios can help build emotional resilience and confidence, they say. Reading age-appropriate books or watching cartoons about Halloween is one way to help them visualize the things they might see during this period. Talk about what spooky costumes and decorations your family might encounter — the more details the better — and assure them that you will be there to keep them safe.
"You can practice wearing their costumes, and you can practice trick-or-treating together," suggests Gallant, adding that a child might also like to practice being the one to hand out candy.
Sometimes even all the prep in the world can't stop a kid from freaking out when, say, a "witch" opens the door or a fake rubber spider jumps down from the ceiling. If that happens, Margolin recommends acknowledging their feeling ("Looks like you're feeling scared"), validating that feeling ("It's OK to feel scared. Sometimes I feel scared too") and providing a sense of safety ("You're safe, and I'm right here with you"). It might also be helpful for the parent to prepare themselves for the odd tantrum, which will leave them feeling less flustered if something goes wrong.
"Your toddlers' meltdowns during big events like holidays are not a reflection of your parenting or them not appreciating anything you have done to make it special," says Gallant. "Pivoting and going home on Halloween is absolutely OK."
By now, your kid has probably gotten into the swing of things; forming opinions on candy corn, picking out their own costumes and maybe even starting to understand the appeal of spine-tingling content. But when it comes to introducing kids to scarier Halloween entertainment, whether it's a movie or a "haunted" attraction, Margolin warns that "there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach." There are toddlers who are enthralled by The Nightmare Before Christmas, and 10-year-olds who find it absolutely diabolical. And just because you were unfazed by The Addams Family or haunted hay rides at that age doesn't mean your kid will react the same way. Follow their lead, and take your time.
"Kids will show you and tell you when they’re ready by showing signs and asking questions," Margolin says. "And of course, you can always ask them if they’re interested in watching something. If they seem interested, show them the preview. If they seem comfortable and they're expressing genuine interest, give it a go! Let them know ahead of time that if it becomes too much, you can pause or stop it at any time."
If it does end up being too scary, turn the movie off (or leave) and, as ever, acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that they are safe.
Not all kids will be fazed. The Goosebumps generation has been known to find ghost stories and moderately macabre content thrilling, but remind your mini Stephen King that his classmates (and younger siblings) may not share that same level of tolerance for scary fare.
Tweens and teens
While some communities have tried to enforce age limits for trick-or-treating (typically capping it at age 12), plenty of parents are happy to let their tweens and teens enjoy the fun for as long as they like. What parents may find, however, is that those Halloween plans no longer include them, as older kids prefer to go door-to-door (or just party) with their friends rather than take part in the annual family stroll around the neighborhood.
"It used to be around the age of 14 kids would be really expressing independence around Halloween. I would say that age dropped to about 12," LaToya Boston, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Real Moms Live, tells Yahoo Life. "What you see is kids really wanting to be independent and choosing how they hang out for Halloween … and being in charge of what their costumes look like."
How can parents feel confident that their kid will be safe? Boston says that it's important to set "clear guidelines" for the evening and what's involved. Who will be there? Where are they meeting? Will they be going anywhere else? What time will they be home? Is there an alternative plan in case something falls through?
Parents would also do well to create their own back-up plan, should their child feel uncomfortable, unsafe or just ready to come home. Make it clear that you're just a text or phone call away, or set a pick-up location in advance should you need it; a worst-case scenario strategy might also include a plan for what happens if your child's phone gets lost or runs out of battery. Communication is key, Boston stresses. If a child's plans change or they're running late, they need to let their parents know right away.
Halloween is a big night for mischief-making, from wild parties to pulling pranks to harassing trick-or-treaters. If a parent is concerned that their kid might get caught up in the hijinks, Boston recommends having a conversation beforehand about what sort of behavior is expected. It doesn't have to be a stern lecture, however.
"It's so important for parents to be realistic and share their experience as a teen with their kids so that they don't appear to be god-like or far removed from living life," Boston says. In other words, go on and tell them about how you and your friends toilet papered the neighborhood 30 years ago — and how it took three days to clean the mess up.
Costumes may be another cause for concern, as kids lose interest in Disney princess and superhero get-ups. As a mom of four, Boston personally swears by nailing down a Halloween costume early to avoid any last-minute conflicts with, say, a tween rocking an inappropriately skimpy look.
"I always ask my kids literally the first week of October, 'So what's going down for Halloween? What are you going to be? What does that look like?' so that there's no surprises," she explains, adding that if she can't go costume-shopping with her kids herself, she'll at least make sure that there's plenty of time to come up with a back-up if necessary.
Some parents might immediately shut down a costume they think is inappropriate. Another tact, Boston suggests, is to try a less authoritarian, knee-jerk approach. Can tights or a long-sleeved undershirt be added to make a revealing costume less controversial and better suited for a chilly autumn evening? Would your teen reconsider a particularly gory get-up if it's pointed out that it might upset young trick-or-treaters? If something is in bad taste, explain why in a thoughtful way.
Kids in this age group are also likely to be tempted to watch horror films or visit haunted houses — either because they actually want to, or because they just want to join in with their friends. While it's understandable why a parent would fret about letting their child be exposed to violence and gore, Boston says her counseling experience has shown that being overly protective often means that young people are less equipped to make their own judgment calls about what they like and don't like. They may watch Halloween Ends 10 times. They may walk out of the theater five minutes in. Either way, having that experience with supportive, nurturing parents to call on is a good thing.
"Halloween is the biggest opportunity to help your children learn responsibility and independence in a way that they traditionally don't get a chance to throughout the year," Boston says. "By giving children the tools to implement, and then as a parent watching them execute, you're actually giving them the opportunity to really grow."
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