Fear not, timid parents. Handled correctly, Halloween can be good for your kids' development.
That's the message from Barbara Leblanc, director of the Parenting Center at Children's Hospital.
Handling Halloween correctly means choosing which events are appropriate by knowing your own child, both his developmental stage and his temperament, she said.
We all know the thrill of a good scare, but Leblanc explained some of the science behind it, and how that relates to children.
" A lot of (that) behavior is being explained by brain research. And knowing that this excitement, and stories that are frightening, appear across cultures, you ask, 'What is it about humans that makes us like this?'"
Researchers at Vanderbilt University studied chemicals released in the brain due to fear, she said. One of them is a neurotransmitter called dopamine that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It affects emotional responses as well.
"Being scared also generates adrenaline (the fight or flight chemical) that creates exhilaration even after the event has passed," Leblanc said. "So some brains experience a reward after a frightening experience."
Halloween's value is that it's mostly faux fear.
"Halloween is a thrill without real threat, and it's a bonding experience with people who are with you," she said. "You're with family and friends, and because there are boundaries in the make-believe frights, you know you'll be OK."
The emotion of being afraid (thank you, dopamine) intensifies one's memory of the event. Thus the bonding experience and positive feelings that are linked to good ole' scary fun.
But there's a psychology to it as well as a physiology.
"Part of psychological development is learning how to master things that frighten us. Halloween is rite of passage," Leblanc said. It can also build confidence.
She cites the book "The Witch Must Die," by Sheldon Cashdan, which looks at cross-cultural themes in fairy tales. The stories allow children to project their own internal struggles between good and evil onto the battles between characters.
"They fulfill a collective unconscious need to master certain normal fears. Those stories, those cautionary tales, are part of society's attempt to help children feel powerful in a scary world, to prepare for life and to control their behavior.
"So mastering an experience (like Halloween), it can boost your self esteem," Leblanc said.
Certain fears are normal at certain ages, Leblanc explained.
Up to age 5: Kids have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. They may be scared of people in costumes, scary noises, anything outside their control. Parents need to let them know they're safe. Make the fear manageable, Leblanc said, so children learn to cope with it. For instance, if a child fears there's a monster in his closet, "open the closet door, then do something that they can do to make themselves feel safe. Give them a flashlight or a teddy bear for security."
Ages 5-6: Normal fears peak at about 5. Kids are still afraid of ghosts, monsters, witches and the like, but they're starting to make a distinction between what's make-believe and what's real.
Ages 7-11: These children are still concrete thinkers who see things in black and white, but they have vivid imaginations. They're starting to trust the world and cope on their own, but imagination can still influence thinking.
Past age 12, accessible events become a lot more intense in their scares. Leblanc recommends giving your tween a choice about attending activities such as Halloween haunted houses.
Help him make a decision by asking if he's excited about going or if he just wants to be with the group. (Either way is OK, she said.) Ask him to think about what he can do if he gets scared. Help the child realize he also has the option of not attending if that's his true preference.
The biggest thing at any age, Leblanc said, is to listen to your child. Fears can be created by things an adult wouldn't anticipate.
For younger children about to experience the season's faux frights, she recommends reading Halloween stories ahead of time, talking about trick-or-treating and looking at pictures from previous years.
"If a child tends to be fearful, let them help decorate your house. That reinforces that it isn't real," she said.