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Counselor Offers Tips for Helping Kids Cope with All Things Scary

Students at Edison School of the Arts enjoy a visit by a Tiger.

Aaron Munson, a school counselor with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) Butler University Laboratory School 55 and the 2022 Indiana Elementary School Counselor of the Year, believes that adults should pay close attention to youngsters in the coming weeks as Halloween may be too intense for some.

“Fall is a favorite time of year for many, and as children grow into adults, the season can bring a sense of nostalgia that seems to last through the end of the year,” Munson said. “If this sentence describes you, it is highly likely that you — perhaps without even realizing it — used healthy coping skills and your circles of support to make it through trick-or-treating.

“For young children, Halloween can be a season that provokes anxiety and fear. Seeing scary advertisements, spooky displays and freaky costumes can cause a spike in cortisol levels — the stress chemical that triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response,” he said.

Munson has the following helpful tips to prepare for this fun — and sometimes frightening — season:

  • Pay attention to your child when you see Halloween decorations. If your child sees the decorations too, it is likely that their first response will be to look at you. Children do this automatically because when they are afraid, their autonomic nervous system — the heart beating faster, increased blood pressure, short/quick breaths — seeks to find calm. Children do this through seeking reassurance from caregivers that make them feel safe.
  • Question instead of assume. Rather than assuming that they feel scared or afraid, ask them an open-ended question. “Jose, are you okay? What are you thinking or feeling right now?” Their answer will give you the information you need to make a supportive decision.
  • Assure them. Remind them that they are safe. They are not in any real danger. Their body is preparing to fight/flight/freeze because of a perceived threat that isn’t actually going to hurt them. Tell them that they are loved, they are safe, and they are okay.
  • If you can name it, you can tame it! Helping the child name what’s happening or what they are feeling means you can make a plan of action. A caregiver’s natural inclination to keep their child safe is a great tool to use here because you get to do exactly that — make a plan to help them feel safe!
  • Encourage some action. Unprocessed emotions, especially when they are tied with spikes of cortisol chemicals, can get stuck in the body. If this occurs too often for too long, it can lead to stomach pain, irritable bowels, nausea, etc. Doing something physical (like taking a walk, playing a game, drawing, dancing, etc.) can help your child put their focus on something positive and productive that can make them feel calm. When this occurs, the body releases endorphins and dopamine. These hormones can counteract cortisol and make your child feel much better. 

Munson points out that it’s never too late to implement these tips, even if your child is a preteen to teenager . Putting these ideas into practice may make this the best Halloween your child has had.