Halloween Questions and Answers

Oct. 31, 2001 -- Leading child psychology experts address concerns posed by ABCNEWS.com users about Halloween and trick-or-treating. Here are excerpts from their answers:

1. Should I send my kids out on Halloween this year?

Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training, Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital:

Kids love Halloween, and it should not be denied. It is a national holiday, and for kids, quite important. It is celebrated in schools, at parties, and is looked forward to all year. To deny this, would be a major deprivation, and could even reinforce that something so horrible is happening, that we need to change our "business as usual." Most kids of all ages do not link Halloween with the terrorism events. Halloween is viewed as a party, as a time to dress up, and most importantly, a way for kids to allay fears of ghosts, goblins and supernatural events. It is much akin to playing. We would not want our younger kids to stop playing, since they work out most of their fears through this means. Why, then, should we abandon Halloween?

2. Is it normal for children and parents to experience fear and anxiety this Halloween?

Pete Stavinoha, Neuropsychologist, Children's Medical Center of Dallas:

It is normal for parents to feel a heightened sense of anxiety, particularly given the September 11th events as well as the ongoing anthrax concerns. I think that anytime you send your child into a situation where they're going to be going door to door or they're going to be out after dark should raise a parent's anxiety. But particularly this year with all of the heightened sense of vulnerability that we as citizens are feeling, I think it's very appropriate that parents feel this concern because that ought to lead them to more awareness about what the potential dangers are and some actions to deal with those.

3. What can parents do to deal with anxiety over sending their children trick-or-treating?

Pete Stavinoha, Neuropsychologist, Children's Medical Center of Dallas:

In order to deal with the anxiety about sending their kids trick-or-treating, parents need to look at their own anxieties about this and make sure they're not doing something that they're uncomfortable with. And parents probably ought to accompany their kids, carry a flashlight, and only go to homes where they know the people. They can also look for suitable alternatives such as school parties, church parties, and other things that will give parents a greater sense of comfort because they know and have a handle on what's going on. If a child is feeling a heightened sense of anxiety during this Halloween, there's no need to send a child off into a situation where they're going to feel more anxious. So if your child is expressing some reluctance about going trick-or-treating, they certainly don't need to go. Again you might look at an alternative such as a neighborhood party or something along those lines, or you can ask the child steps you can take as a parent to make them feel less anxious. "Can I come with you, can I walk up to the door with you, can I carry a flashlight, can we go before dark even starts?" So, there are things we can do to lessen that anxiety.

4. What unusual things should I look out for this Halloween?

Arlette Lefebvre, Staff Psychiatrist, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada:

Halloween is TRICK-or-treat time and, unfortunately, there may be individuals who will get a kick out of scaring kids and parents by making it look like candy has been tampered with or biological agents have been introduced, so I would definitely expect a certain number of "hoaxes," perhaps even some done by kids themselves, without a true appreciation of the degree of anxiety and fear such false alarms can generate. That is why it is particularly important, this year, to accompany young children trick-or-treating right up to the door, this year, and to select homes and families you know well to call upon. Teenagers will want to go trick-or-treating on their own, but you should sit down and talk with them ahead of time about what they might encounter and how to stay safe this Halloween.

5. Will the scary aspects of the holiday increase fears brought about by Sept. 11?

Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training, Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital:

It is very unlikely that this will awaken old fears. However, kids do need some protection, perhaps from inappropriate costumes and behaviors of some kids. Younger kids, in particular, should be shielded from unthinking adolescents who may dress up as a terrorist, a bloody Muslim, or wielding powdery packets of fake anthrax. Such behaviors are clearly destructive and must be, in my view, rejected. Standard ghosts, witches, etc., will not scare most kids. On the other hand, many parents should be on the lookout for increased signs of anxiety and fears. Kids expressing wariness beyond what has been their norm, should be taken home early. If kids express fears of terrorism, they should be calmed and reassured that this is a fun holiday, and there is no danger. Many of these kids should either not go out or come home early. Some kids are dressing up as Uncle Sam, or other patriotic figures.

6. Do you think the continuous news coverage will influence a parent's decision to send their child trick-or-treating?

Pete Stavinoha, Neuropsychologist, Children's Medical Center of Dallas:

I think the ongoing news coverage of the terrorist events, the anthrax attacks, will heighten a parent's anxiety about sending their kids out trick-or-treating. But I also think that is very appropriate. With all that's going on, parents do need to have that heightened sense of awareness, they need to be more vigilant about those situations where they themselves or their children are vulnerable. And so if you're sending your child out after dark, potentially thinking about doing it without parent accompaniment, that's a vulnerable situation for the child. I think parents need to rethink that, and think about steps they can take including going out before dark, carrying a flashlight, making sure you're accompanying your child, going only to homes where you know the people. I think those are steps a parent can take that are appropriate steps to deal with that appropriate vigilance they should be showing.

7. Should I switch my child's candy when they get home?

Arlette Lefebvre, Staff Psychiatrist, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada:

There is no simple answer to this question, just as there is no formula I, or anyone else, can give you to keep your children safe. Routines and structures are an important part of making kids feel safe and Halloween is definitely one of the rituals kids look forward to the most. By the same token, young kids pick up their parents' anxiety right away and may get confused and upset (and not enjoy Halloween much) if mom or dad is constantly reminding them not to touch the candies given out by neighbors they know and trust.

Therefore, I think the most important plan is one that the parent can feel comfortable with, without having to lie to or "trick" the child. It is always a good idea to remind young kids not to eat any candies until they get home and mom or dad has a chance to go through them all with you. It is particularly important, this year, to knock on doors you know very well and stay away from strangers' houses. That's something you will want to talk about with the older child or teen.

We certainly hope that wrapped candies bought at the local grocery store are safe and have not been tampered with, but unfortunately, we cannot be sure. If you feel better giving the child homemade goodies for the first few days and only allowing the unwrapping of candies collected at Halloween in a week or so, that's certainly another possibility.

8. How do I explain to my child that it is too dangerous to go trick-or-treating?

Lynda Madison, Director, Family Support and Psychological Services, Children's Hospital, Omaha, Neb.:

The notion that someone could play a mean trick on someone else by messing their Halloween candy isn't new, and most children know that it isn't a good idea to take offerings from strangers. Just tell your child that because you really don't know your neighbors well yet, it isn't worth taking the risk. Your child will take clues from your attitude about the situation, so don't make him suspicious and fearful by going into detail about all the awful things someone could do to cause harm to someone else.

Just be matter-of-fact about your decision. Simply say, "I don't really think there would be any problem, but it's probably a good idea to be extra careful this year," and then quickly offer an alternative plan: "Let's just go to people's houses we know" or, "You and two friends can hand out candy at our house," or "Let's have a party here instead."

9. Are there alternatives to going trick-or-treating?

Lynda Madison, Director, Family Support and Psychological Services, Children's Hospital, Omaha, Neb.:

If you don't feel it is safe to let your child go trick-or-treating, you can change the tradition a little without scaring your child, and he or she will still have a great time. If you are invested in preserving the "spirit" of Halloween, here are a few ways to do it: Start by remembering why trick-or-treating is fun.

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 by doing what you're always told not to do, begging from people! Each of these traditions can be preserved, even in these uncertain times, with a little creativity and energy on a parent's part. First, to ensure your child's safety, identify a few people whose houses and candy you are sure will be safe. Call friends and relatives ahead of time and arrange to take your children to each other's houses. Accompany your child to "better neighborhoods" if necessary, driving your child and a few excited friends in your car, and stopping to visit for a few minutes at each house. Finally, make sure you find plenty of people to ogle over your child's costume, and offer a few varieties of candies to give weight to the bag he or she returns home with. Then, don't end the excitement there. With a bowl of apples to bob for and a few marshmallows dangling from the ceiling on strings (to be eaten with your hands behind your back), it is simple to extend the festivities with a little party for a few of your child's friends. Distracted by the chance to play, they will feel they have had a full night of fun, and Halloween will remain a holiday to be remembered.