Fall’s Annual Rite of Spookiness has descended, and besides candy and cooler weather (and a few tricks here and there), Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without haunted houses.
Although many adults and teens love these yearly, staged mini-horror productions, however, according to Centerstone Clinic Coordinator and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Kelly S. Benedict, LMST, young children might not love them as much as they think they will.
“Haunted houses can be a real shock for a young child who’s never been exposed to one,” Benedict said. “Kids get extremely excited; they feed off their parent’s enthusiasm. Plus, haunted houses just sound magical and fun.”
If parents don’t talk to their children about what the experience will be like, the reality of a haunted house can be much different from the perception, Benedict added.
“I see this all the time with clients,” the therapist explained. “Someone jumps out at a haunted house and grabs the child, and he or she is completely unprepared. It puts them in a complete state of shock; it can be very traumatic.”
The key, Benedict continued, is for parents to talk to their children about the haunted-house experience beforehand.
“Tell them what to expect,” she advised. “Ask them: ‘How will you feel if someone jumps out and grabs you or screams in your face?’ Communication is key. Parents need to be sure their kids can differentiate reality from fantasy and make-believe.”
Benedict also strongly cautioned against parents taking children who’ve been through a traumatic event.
“I usually discourage taking a child who’s been through something traumatic,” she said, “because a haunted house can serve as an emotional trigger for such children, giving rise to extreme anxiety and painful memories. They find themselves feeling fearful in a situation that’s supposed to be fun, and it ruins the experience.”
Theresa Kruczek, a counseling educator at Ball State University, added, “Preschool children and those in early elementary school often have a difficult time with Halloween. Some may say they understand when things are make believe and when they are not, but it still may not register when the event occurs.”
Kruczek went a step further, adding scary movies and costumes to the list of Halloween traditions parents should be cautious of exposing young children to.
“Parents should reach for a can of anti-monster spray before bedtime,” Kruczek suggested. “After a frightening experience children may have nightmares. They [children] really can’t tell us too much about the dream, but we can take precautions to ward off those dreams by using a can of air freshener, otherwise known as anti-monster spray, to keep monsters at bay. Monsters don’t like nice-smelling stuff.”
Benedict added that, in her practice, she doesn’t designate a set age for when children will or won’t be ready for haunted houses or other, scarier Halloween trappings.
“Children are all different,” Benedict said. “They all have different baseline anxiety levels and degrees of inherent skittishness and fearfulness. Parents should always consider a child’s unique personality traits before exposing that child to a haunted house.”
Kruczek also offered the following guidelines regarding young children and Halloween: “Parents should limit preschoolers to 30 minutes or less of Halloween-related activities; parents should ask friends and strangers to remove masks to show children that it really is a person under the costume; parents and siblings should never wear masks around youngsters who are afraid of them.”
“Just because you love haunted houses doesn’t mean your 4-year-old will,” Kruczek concluded. “Remember: Parents are the best judge of their child’s abilities. If they freak out during a scary movie, they’ll freak out at a haunted house or when someone in a scary outfit comes by.”
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.