Caspar the Friendly…Mommy?

Young kids lose sight of who's behind that Halloween mask, caution experts

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Oct. 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- You've been waiting all year to haul out your Grim Reaper costume and scare the stuffing out of the neighborhood kids.

But if you're a parent of a young child, you might want to put on a fairy princess costume instead.

Young children, especially pre-school age ones, have difficulty perceiving the difference between fantasy and reality, child development experts say. A child might understand that a mask is "pretend" until it takes on movement, said Julie Riess, director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

When it starts to take on human movement, children ages 2 to 4 can no longer determine if it's a real monster or mommy having fun, Riess said. Their very real feelings of fear can overwhelm then, Riess said.

"A child can tell us that ghosts aren't real. They can walk up and down the aisles of a store looking at costumes and state that the monsters aren't real," Riess said. "But when those costumes take on movement by the person wearing them, the affective system of the child is turned on, and the message gets blurred. What was a moment ago clearly pretend is now mixed with psychological arousal, and the child can no longer make a clear judgment."

Child development experts suggest several methods to soothe the fears of young children at this holiday time.

One, stay away from the fake blood and monster masks. In fact, any type of identity change can be scary to little kids, said Theresa Kruczek, a professor of counseling psychology at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

"Just the covering of the face can be confusing to them, even if it's a very benign mask," Kruczek said. "I'd urge parents to stay way from transforming masks altogether."

You can also have children practice taking on and off simple masks and reminding each other that "it's just me under here."

If your little one is still frightened, try a "monster spray," Kruczek suggested. Use an air freshener, explain to the child that monsters don't like the smell and so it keeps them away, she said.

Even older children should be watched closely this year for signs of anxiety. Since Sept. 11, many children have seen disturbing images on television and may have an already heightened anxiety, Riess said.

Halloween, which is designed to be a little bit scary and unpredictable, may be too much for some kids, Riess said.

Kruczek suggests avoiding haunted houses and limiting pre-schoolers to no more than 30 minutes of trick-or-treating during the daylight hours. And ask older siblings to not wear their scary masks around younger children.

What To Do

It's not only very young children whose safety has to be considered on Halloween.

When darkness falls on Oct. 31, kids of all ages will swarm the streets, knocking on doors in search of a sugar fix. With so many little ones out and about, experts offer these tips to make sure their kids home safely.

  • Carry a flashlight.

  • Choose costumes that are bright, reflective, flame-resistant, and fit well to prevent tripping or entanglements. Consider adding reflective tape to costumes and bags for great visibility.

  • Supervise your children.

  • Think twice before using simulated knives, guns or swords. An item that looks clearly fake in the daylight can look menacing at night.

  • Do not use candles in pumpkins. Make sure there's a clear path to your door. Move anything kids can trip over out of the way.

  • Kids should avoid running with props such as brooms and plastic pitchforks that can be dangerous to the eyes.

  • Wait until your children are home to sort and check treats. Throw away any unwrapped items or wrappers with a pinhole in it. Community centers, malls and churches often have alternatives to door-to-door trick-or-treating.

    Read more Halloween safety tips at the Children's Safety Zone or from the Los Angeles Fire Department.

SOURCES: Interviews with Julie Riess, Ph.D., director, Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Teresa Kruczek, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.

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