Halloween gives all of us the opportunity to understand what kinds of scary images are manageable and fun for children and which ones hijack their nervous systems and leave a lasting negative impression. In a study of 1,500 college students, one in four reported they still have residual effects from scary TV or movies they saw as children. Preschool teachers often observe the way programs that show fighting promote aggression on the playground and an obsession with images like Power Rangers.
Halloween gives us the chance to discriminate between the kinds of experiences that help children to build courage and resiliency and those that overwhelm them. Our annual Halloween parade, where elementary students showcase their costumes through the preschool yards, includes cautions about masks and images that might upset our youngest students. Thinking ahead about the parade promotes empathy in older students by giving them the chance to select a costume that’s fun for others to see but not unnerving.
Right now in the lead-up to Halloween, there are countless ads for horror movies on TV. Suddenly the screen erupts with blood dripping down a zombie’s face or a vampire emitting horrible sounds. It can be confusing for parents when children seem excited about these or other scary images, just as they often react to scenes of fighting with stimulation and attraction. Yet again and again, parents report disturbance and anxiety in children as a result of something they have seen, perhaps only for a minute.
At the preschool level of thinking, what you see is what’s real. That doesn’t mean not exploring imagination. On Halloween we get to play with fantasy and fear that is manageable. Part of the process of going trick-or-treating is an adult offering their loving presence as children look at costumes and enjoy them, without feeling overwhelmed. “Look, there’s a ghost!” or a pirate or a superhero.
During our Halloween parade, it’s the preschool teachers who provide that supportive presence. “Look it’s a ghost – isn’t that fun?” Being helped to manage fear can be transformative. We have a favorite phrase at our school that captures the process of being helped to overcome fear: “Love and light make fear take flight.” You might try chanting these words when a child is trying to be brave in the face of something that feels scary.