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Taking Halloween by the Horns

Tips for parents whose children aren't the happiest trick-or-treaters

Writer: Harry Kimball

en Español

Let’s face it, Halloween can be a real stressor for parents, and not just those for whom costume-making entails blood, sweat, and tears. The reason they put up with the angst, not to speak of stocking the house with tiny Snickers and Kit Kat bars, is the unmitigated joy their children derive from the holiday, which seems tailor made for young imaginations, as well as appetites. As an expert spells it out aptly for ABC News:

“First, there is the excitement of dressing up, taking on the persona of someone or something else, and acting the part for a little while. Next, there is showing off for the people around you, those who will marvel at how scary, fierce, beautiful or unique you are. And finally, there is the chance to grab as many Skittles and chocolate as you can.”

For many children, Halloween is a sanctioned opportunity to hit the town and get some major developmental work done, exhibiting mastery over their environment, testing out confident interpersonal interactions, and building a social network.

But for plenty of other kids, those same opportunities loom as huge challenges. And for their parents: As one mom we know put it, “If you have a kid who’s prone to meltdowns, Halloween is the perfect setup.” For kids who have challenges acting appropriately, dealing with surprises and disappointments, following directions, getting along with peers, or resisting the impulse to consume all their spoils on the spot, the evening can go off the rails.

How can the parents of kids with developmental or anxiety disorders or disruptive behavior problems stay cool on what has the potential to be the most anarchic holiday of the year?

The Costume

For some kids, particularly those with sensory issues, the wrong item of clothing can destroy a wonderful night—for you and for them. Experienced (and tough as nails) parents of special needs children have an elegant solution: wear what suits them. No “helmets, masks, face paint, scratchy material, special shoes, sound effects or anything scary,” writes Michaela Searfoorce on The Foorce. Ellen Seidman, writing in Redbook, describes years of meltdowns and freakouts for her son Max, diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “He wailed; I cried.” And then, a revelation:

“We would do Halloween our way, in T-shirts and sweatpants. That would be our tradition, as quirky as our family itself. And so off we went, trick-or-treating. ‘Who are you?’ neighbors asked, perplexed by my costume-less children. ‘I’m Sabrina!’ said Sabrina. ‘Ax!’ said Max. Best costumes ever.”

The Routine

If your child has problems with social interactions because of developmental issues or an anxiety disorder, having a clear plan of attack for trick-or-treating is key. This can be a social story to prepare a kid for the experience—what to expect, what he’ll be expected to do, what constitutes good behavior.

One mom we know suggests eating before you go out, going early to avoid the “mayhem” of later hours, and trying to give as much information about the timetable as possible. If a little chaos is unavoidable (and it probably is), kids with developmental issues will likely be reassured by a return to routine at home afterwards, like a regular bedtime or evening activity.

Or the routine can be a clear agreement about who will speak and when at the door, so that anxious kids know what’s expected of them. Should you decide to stay in, a child can still participate from a safe remove and gain some social experience, even if it’s not a lot. Remember, this night is supposed to be fun, but it can also be a learning experience for a child that allows them to enjoy it more fully in the future.

The Consequences

One mother we know makes the consequences of undesirable behavior very clear to her son. Reasoning that the random anarchy and scariness of Halloween should mean more emphasis on behavior, not less, she plans to spend ample time before that night making him understand that even though there is going to be a lot of activity, the same rules—about touching, moving around—still apply. “I’m trying to impress on him that he could end up getting time outs or even go home if he gets totally out of control,” she says.

The Fears

Adults can forget that there are some real fears associated with Halloween. So while some parents worry over their children’s exposure to scary imagery, some blithely ignore the issue until it is too late. Young children who still have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality could get a nasty shock, particularly if they have specific phobias or anxiety associated with Halloween images like witches or monsters. And parents shouldn’t forget that older children passing into their “tweenage” years are developing a better understanding of death, and the holiday could be unsettling for them even as it has become quite commercial.

Most of all, remember what the holiday is all about. Halloween is supposed to be fun, but fun isn’t mandatory. Parents want the best for their children, and for their children to be seen as capable and engaged in the eyes of their peers. But it is the comfort and joy of kids that should come first. If this isn’t the year for your child to break out of her shell or for him to be able to handle extended activities with peers, there is always next year.

On The Raising Socially Anxious Children Blog, a mother describes what her kids decided for Halloween, a plan she was more than happy to agree with. Activities include “Carve pumpkins the night before,” “Order Pizza for dinner,” “Make some goody bags for their friends in the neighborhood,” and “Spend Halloween together as a family warm and snuggly in our house.” Not “traditional,” but then some kids aren’t “typical,” and this night is not the be-all-end-all. If both kids and parents are less anxious or on-edge doing Halloween their way, more power to them.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 25, 2023.