Kids Need the Halloween Tradition

In wake of terrorist attacks, parents should keep things light

SATURDAY, Oct. 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Because children have recently been subjected to the real-life horrors of the terrorist attacks, many parents may find it hard to imagine a more inappropriate time for a holiday that celebrates fear and ghoulishness.

But, despite major malls across the country cancelling their "trick or treating" tradition this year, mental health experts say that going on with life -- including Halloween -- is one of the best ways parents can restore a sense of security and comfort in their kids' lives.

Just be sensitive, they add.

"Routines and customary activities are really important to kids, and those events may be more important than ever with all the turmoil and chaos going on in the world," explains Dr. James MacIntyre, a child psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at Albany Medical College in New York.

MacIntyre says abrupt changes in those routines, instead of fending off fear, can sometimes have the opposite effect of sparking a sense of alarm.

"Kids take a lot of cues from their parents' reactions to things, so I would say for starters, people shouldn't think they should cancel the usual holiday routines or things they like to do on Halloween," he adds.

MacIntyre cautions, however, that parents should be sensitive if kids don't want to participate in normal Halloween activities.

"If kids are expressing fears or apprehensions about going out in the dark or going out trick-or-treating, then by all means, don't force the issue of doing it for the sake of getting back to normal. It really may be a reaction to the truly scary things that are going on around the world," he says.

On the other hand, even if kids are frothing at the bit to dress up and hit the candy trail, parents may still want to exercise some extra sensitivity, adds Dr. Judy Linger, medical director of Child and Adolescent Services at the Center for Emotional and Behavioral Health, Indian River Memorial Hospital in Vero Beach, Fla.

"This obviously isn't the year for us as a nation to be thinking about the most frightening of costumes -- the Freddy Kreuger and gory characters from 'Scream,' or other similar masks that have been so popular in the past," she says.

Linger notes that some communities have even decided to shift their festivities to All Saints' Day, the day after Halloween, when people dress up as someone they greatly admire.

Although anxiety and even a bit of depression are considered normal in the wake of the recent traumatizing events, parents should be aware of signs that children may be having more serious problems that may require professional help.

"You really want to watch how much anxiety they're showing at home," says Linger. "If they're clingy, they're not sleeping, are complaining of nightmares, maybe are having a lot of sudden anger outbursts, that might also be a sign of distress."

MacIntyre adds that how children interact with friends or at school may also be tip-offs of trouble. "If parents notice that kids are changing from their daily routine -- maybe the child has always been really involved and outgoing and now they don't want to go out and instead want to stay home close to parents -- that might be a sign they are really affected by what's going on."

"Or if they suddenly aren't hungry or are mysteriously not feeling good, the first stop then should be the family doctor. But if they can't find something physically wrong, it may be a sign that a child is churning emotionally over these events and it's coming out through physical symptoms. That's not at all uncommon for younger kids," he adds.

If you're having trouble gauging how your child is handling recent events, and wonder whether he or she might not be resting easy as Halloween approaches, Linger has a simple suggestion: Talk to your child.

"You might want to just come out and ask them, what do they want to do this year? Do they want to stick with the same traditions or change the traditions?"

"And the spin doesn't even need to be in the context of what's going on in the world. You can just suggest that since the child is getting older, you wondered if they still want to do the same activities," she says.

"Kids in general will let you know and if you're sensitive and available, then you will hear that from them," she adds.

What To Do

Visit Connect for Kids: Guidance for Grown-ups for extensive information and links on Helping Kids Cope with Trauma.

Some reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may mimic post-traumatic stress. Visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for more information on the topic.

SOURCES: Interviews with James MacIntyre, M.D., child psychiatrist, associate professor of psychiatry, Albany Medical College, New York; Judy Linger, M.D., medical director of Child and Adolescent Services, Center for Emotional and Behavioral Health, Indian River Memorial Hospital, Vero Beach, Fla.
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