Q: My 22-month-old son is scared to death of people wearing masks or costumes that cover their faces. Why is this? And how do I make holidays like Halloween a little easier for him?
A: For toddlers, masks and costumes challenge their understanding of appearance (what something looks like) and reality (what it is "really truly" underneath). Toddlers are not yet able to grasp that someone may look like a witch on the outside (the mask) but really be their Aunt Molly underneath.
Children this age have developed a sense of what a “person” should look like. For example, toddlers know that a person “should” have hair on his head (usually a narrow range of colors including brown, black, yellow (blonde), red, or white/gray). People also have two eyes, a nose, mouth and lips. They have a neck and shoulders, a mid-section, two arms and two legs. Masks and costumes are terrifying precisely because they challenge your child’s trust in one of his most basic understandings—what a person looks like.
Imagine seeing a clown. The clown (purple hair, bright white skin, big red mouth) does not, in many important ways, match your child’s image of a “person.” However, the clown does look like a “person” in some ways (arms, legs, neck, etc.). It is the mismatch between what the clown looks like and your child’s expectations that makes this situation so scary and confusing. Some parts of the clown are “normal” and others are not. As your child grows and his thinking skills develop to a point where he is able to accept two opposing ideas (this may look like a clown, but it’s actually my cousin), his fear of masks and costumes will subside.
In the meantime, here are some ideas for making Halloween a little less spooky:
- Provide some (non-frightening) masks for your child to play with in the weeks before Halloween. Having your child peek through the eye-holes, and seeing you do the same, will help to de-sensitize him before the 31st rolls around.
- Trick-or-treat during the daytime—or skip it altogether. Many organizations—preschools, malls, churches or synagogues—have Halloween programs that don’t require going out at night when everything is a little spookier, even for grown-ups.
- If you do go out, avoid those houses with the dry-ice fog! Some families really get into the Halloween holiday (which is great), but these are the houses to skip on your Halloween route. Your little goblin doesn’t need to have the armless hand give him candy or be startled by the stuffed witch that cackles on a motion detector. Stick to houses you know, so your child will be greeted by friendly faces at the door. Walk up and ring the bell with your little one, and crouch down next to her in case she feels unsure.
- How to handle trick-or-treaters at your door? One answer is to let someone else have the door-answering honors while you and your child play in another room. But if you want your child to participate in handing out candy, first take a peek outside to see whether your visitors are more Casper or Poltergeist. If they’re scary-ish, you may want to hand off your toddler to another adult, and do a solo Snickers distribution this time. If your trick-or-treaters appear to be friendly ghosts, get down at your child’s level and open the door slowly. As you do, tell your child what costumes he will see. If you know the kids, you can ask them to take their masks off so your toddler recognizes who they are “underneath.”
With you there to help and support him, your child will make it through Halloween night—especially once he realizes just what’s in those goody bags he keeps getting at every house.