Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Anti-monster spray and other ways to unspook Halloween for kids with special needs

For years, our family didn't celebrate Halloween like other ones did—Max was terrified of our town's parade, didn't like how costumes felt and could have cared less about candy because he had trouble chewing it. Now he's come around (although he still doesn't do candy), but for many families with kids that have special needs, Halloween can be one scary time of year.

Theresa Kruczek, Ph.D., a professor of school counseling and school psychology at Teachers College at Ball State University in Indiana, shares some helpful tips to help kids with special needs feel less spooked.

Arm kids for success

What you do: Fill a spray bottle with water. Optional: add a few drops of a calming essential oil your child likes. What you tell your child before you spritz: Monsters don't like things that smell good, they only like disgusting, stinky smells. So we can use anti-monster spray to keep them away.

Help kids understand that ghosts and goblins aren't real
"Children with developmental delays and intellectual disability may have trouble separating fantasy and reality, and might think scary elements of Halloween are real," says Kruczek. So discuss pretend vs. real and provide concrete examples of things the child is familiar with that are pretend –for example, you can say something like, "When we pretend to play house and you pretend to be the mom or dad, you’re not really the mom or dad—you’re just pretending. It’s the same way with ghosts and ghouls—that’s just people pretending to be scary things and it’s not real." You can also ask friends and strangers to take off masks so children understand there's a person beneath the costume.

Try some exposure therapy

"Expose children to scary stuff in the light of day to help desensitize them and help them anticipate what they might encounter on Halloween night," recommends Kruczek. For example, go on a “field trip” to a store that carries lots of decorations and take in the various sights and sounds. 

Practice positive imagery

That's shrink-speak for "happy thoughts." The idea is, when a child is feeling scared, you redirect them to take slow, deep breaths and then encourage them to think about positive images. It might be a good memory or a movie, toy or activity that they enjoy. "Kids can think about senses associated with the image to really tap into the vibe—what they see and hear, what it feels like, if there are any smells or tastes," she says. "The trick is to have them practice ahead of time, before they encounter something scary."

Bring along a comfort buddy

If a child has something they use at home to self-soothe or calm, like a stuffed toy or fidget, encourage them to take it along on both the field trip and trick-or-treating.

Celebrate Halloween your way

This is something we learned to do at our house when Max was a little guy. We'd play in our backyard, down ice-cream and hand out candy. Some other families and towns band together in school or church parking lots for a Trunk or Treat—they deck out their cars in decorations, and kids go from car to car to gather loot. It's a calmer, more chill Halloween, and especially helpful for kids who can't walk long distances or navigate hills. A Facebook friend of mine, Sherri-Rose, just posted about her town making this happen.

"Surrounded by the generosity of some of the nicest and creative families in town, the spirit that only teenagers can bring, and the sun shining after the rainiest of mornings, a father told me that this was the first time his school-age son has ever been able to trick or treat. For once, my Halloween tears were not caused by disappointment, but rather pride, joy, and thankfulness."

Image: Oriental Trading Co.

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