An MGH psychiatrist share tips for parents on keeping Halloween fun but not too scary.

How scary is too scary at Halloween? There is, of course, no clearly drawn answer. In this age of seemingly constant parental worry, moms and dads understandably consider the terrifying, yet unlikely possibility that they might irreparably scar their children if they don’t get things exactly right on all fronts. These worries apply as much to complicated issues like bullying as they do to seemingly mundane concerns like Halloween appropriateness. Here in Boston there are haunted forests, haunted amusement parks and marathon scary movie nights in local cinemas and on TV.

Finding Comfortable October Fun

Where can you comfortably bring your child for a little October fun?

It’s actually a question worth asking.

“As a parent, you have the unique ability to help your child escape significant embarrassment.”

Below are some guidelines that will hopefully make this year’s autumn goes as smoothly as possible.

As we are very fond of saying here at The Clay Center, think developmentally:

  • Toddlers and school-aged kids are still prone to magical thinking. They’ll have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy, and this is especially the case when they’re all revved up. (I still recall, as will many readers, that super-scary witch in the Snow White display at that Disney World ride. I was absolutely certain that she was real!) As a safe bet, unless you really think your toddler is uniquely drawn to and is not at all bothered by the scary stuff, I think I’d stick with cute doggy costumes and princesses for Halloween until that toddler is a bit older.
  • School-aged kids are more likely to embrace the scares, but you should still check in with your grade school children before they embark on an outing with friends to something like a haunted amusement park. Talk to your child in private, away from friends, and even away from siblings. Make sure that he or she isn’t going under duress. If your child doesn’t want to go to the haunted whatever-it-be, then you can offer to help him or her “save face” by manufacturing a family excuse. Your child can always meet up with pals later.
  • Steve Schlozman, MD
    Steve Schlozman, MD
  • Adolescence, of course, gets more complex.
    Middle school children are all about belonging to a group. It was, in fact, the captain of my seventh grade basketball team who was absolutely terrified of the haunted house we all went to together. In retrospect, I’m guessing he knew he’d be scared, but he was actually more scared of not belonging. Just as with the school-aged children, you can always ask your middle school child in private what he or she really wants to do. As a parent, you have the unique ability to help your child escape significant embarrassment.
  • For older teens, it’s all about that fine balance between limits and trust. The “trick” part of “trick or treat” is much more appealing to teens, and that trick can end up being pretty scary for parents. Remember that as much as teens look like they’re not listening to you, they probably are. And, as much as you may sound like a broken record (an admittedly dated simile these days), you still need to say the same things over and over. No booze. Drive safely. No real knives. Stay in touch. Abide by the curfew. Be aware that the police are everywhere on Halloween—and that that’s a good thing. And at this age, help them to be able to say to their friends that they aren’t going to that haunted warehouse because it just isn’t their thing. This is all about identity formation, about teens establishing what they value.

You know what? You’ve got this. Parents know best. You just need to be active in acting on what you already know.

Oh yeah—remember to buy enough candy, too.

A version of this article was first published by The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. For more information about the center, please contact us.

Steve Schlozman, MD, is a contributor to The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.