The other day, my wife and I took our little boy in to a Halloween store to find him a costume. It was one of those stores that just kind of pops up in a shopping center during this time of year. We walked in and were immediately greeted by spooky music, with a cemetery on our left touting ghosts and tombstones. On our right was a giant Freddy Krueger, skeletons and some kind of bloody leg thing.
It startled me a little bit and I immediately looked down at our 4 year old and how did he handle this traumatic experience? He laughed. Hysterically. Then said, “Isn’t that silly, Daddy?” Um, sure, now let’s get moving on to the costumes.
Not all kids take these scary events in stride. But how do you know how much your child can handle? Lisa Elliott, licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Behavioral Health in Denton, said to allow kids to decide if they are really scared.
“Some kids know these things are not real so they find humor in them,” Elliott said. “They have already reasoned it all out. But a lot of kids can’t do that, especially if they have a bit of anxiety to begin with. Another point is a kiddo may say they are not scared but then they experience sleep problems or tummy aches. If that’s the case a parent needs to talk about it with them and help the child to verbalize their fears/worries instead of internalizing them.”
Elliott says if children are afraid, teach them to control their thoughts and eliminate irrational thoughts. You do this by teaching them the following steps:
- Thought stopping – literally yell “STOP” in their head or flip a little rubber bracelet on their wrist.
- Thought replacement – help them prepare for two wonderful memories to go to for escape. They have to be rich with sensory memories such as a time they went to Disneyworld® and their favorite ride – they can see it, smell it, hear it, feel it.
- Thought reasoning – use truth, past history, facts to reason away irrational thoughts.
“So they have a scary worry – teach them to stop the thought and immediately replace it with a warm, happy, loving, fun thought to relax,” Elliott said. “Once they are calm, then use their good brain power to make the irrational thoughts go away by thinking about what is true, what is fact, what has happened in the past. There are no real mummies, vampires etc. Have them touch the stuff to see it is not real, look for batteries, take the batteries out and they no longer work.”
Elliott has treated children for this very thing lately. She asks the parents to take their child to a Halloween store. Let them slowly go down aisles and if they grow more anxious, they turn around and do the first two steps listed above and then try again.
“If children are a bit overwhelmed the first time and want to leave, let them,” Elliott said. “Then go back and walk them through the steps again so they are not flooded with anxiety. Take time with children and they will most likely begin to enjoy the store. Now you don’t want to push kids into more than they can handle because that can cause further problems – so use them as a guide and help them conquer it.”
Who knows maybe one day, we can all walk into those stilly stores and laugh at the dismembered bodies and spooky music. I’m not quite there yet.