Halloween is one of the most fun times of the year. But for some kids, it can be downright petrifying. The environment once deemed safe and secure has now changed in some seriously scary ways. Kids’ senses can play tricks on them. Their imagination is running wild with fear. So how do we get a sensory-defensive kid to become brave at Halloween?
Fear is a natural, emotional, biological response to perceived danger. Although babies are not afraid of anything fresh out the womb, they do come equipped with a startle response to sudden changes in their surroundings. Called the Moro Reflex, it is an involuntary reaction to a threat. Look at it like an emergency trip-switch to any stimulus (light, sound, temperature, body movement, touch, etc). Its role is primarily for survival; to alert, arouse, and summon assistance for a possibly unsafe situation. This reflex fades roughly between 2-6 months of life. However, if it remains intact, the child navigates their world in survival mode. With a frequent dosage of cortisol and adrenaline, they are hyper-vigilant to their surroundings, assuming that any change in their environment is danger.
On the Defense
The Moro reflex is one of the earliest primitive reflexes to emerge and is responsible for laying the sensory foundation needed for learning and exploration. So, if the reflex doesn’t integrate when it should, a child can become sensory defensive. Sensory defensiveness is an overreaction to certain types of sensory information. A sensory-defensive child will have a low neurological threshold, meaning that even the smallest input will cause the brain to respond, sometimes with aggression or situational avoidance.
What does this mean at Halloween? Watch out for unpredictability.
Sensory defensiveness can trigger in the following ways.
- Visually – A hyper-responsive child may pick up on any changes in their visual field, from light to movement. Their visual system serves as a sort of gatekeeper to protect them from scary situations. They may:
- Avoid dark, unfamiliar areas
- Freak out at quick or unnatural movement of objects/people
- Be afraid of people in masks/heavy makeup (like clowns) where they cannot read facial expressions
- Auditorily – Sound can be difficult to locate, identify, or filter for a hyper-vigilant child. All these spooky/frightening sounds can be overwhelming, stressful, and can cause meltdowns. Some signs of this are:
- Jumping at loud or sudden noises
- Stress and anxiety when in noisy environments
- Fear of entering unfamiliar surroundings that are too quiet or too loud, or where high-pitched noises are present (screams, wails, whispers, etc.) but can’t be precisely located and identified
- Tactile – As someone who is tactile defensive, we cannot handle touch that is not on our terms, especially light touch. We rely heavily on our visual system to determine if something is threatening or safe. If we can’t see it or it looks unpleasant, we want nothing to do with it, like:
- Overreacting to unexpected light touch (like walking into a spider web)
- Refusing to engage with anything that appears unhygienic or rotten (like zombies or gutting pumpkins), especially if hand washing is not immediately available.
Haunted houses thrive on sensory overload to give people a good scare. Although getting scared has its health benefits, the idea of overstimulating the senses can be triggering to some with unfortunate irrational responses.
Full confession: I once got kicked out of a haunted house for hitting an actor after they jumped at me. Even as an adult, this stuff is no joke…
How to Make Halloween Enjoyable
Thanks for the memories – A lot of what we find scary is based off of past negative experiences. The areas of our brain that recall situations (hippocampus) are closely tied to the emotions associated with it (amygdala). If we had a good experience with clowns, then we are less likely to be afraid of them with each encounter. If you can provide positive memories with things that may be scary, kids are more willing to tolerate and engage with them. Bring a flashlight to explore the dark, provide headphones going through a haunted house, or hold their hands when trick-or-treating. Also, lay off of the scary movies until your kid can maturely process them.
Break down the scary – Gory horror movies can be hard to stomach initially. However, it’s easier to enjoy them once you realize that the blood gushing out of a character’s neck is just red-colored corn syrup, bone-breaking sounds are just celery stalks, and paranormal scenes are just good ole’ CGI. Explain the ins and outs of movie magic and what could be scary to your kids. The shadows in their room may be tree branches outside their window or the slime they are touching is just a mixture of cornstarch and water. Once the unknown is known, it may lessen their fears.
Let the scared do the scaring – Children who are scared feel that they have no control over the situation. If this is the case, let your child be in control. Let them plot out what Halloween decorations are in the yard, what costumes they will wear, or where they want to go through the corn maze. You can even play a game of how they can scare you and other family members (within reason).
Invoke the other senses – A hyper-responsive child may have one sensory system activated, like touch or vision, that is giving a negative perception. To reduce it, incorporate their other senses to give a whole picture of the situation and remind them that they are safe. If there is a scary sound in a room, turn the light on to figure out what it is. If something doesn’t look right to touch, sniff it. If they experienced an unexpected touch that sends them into a frenzy, counter it with deep pressure on the area (or give a big squeeze of a hug).
Fear and anxiety are natural emotions that are necessary to keep us out of harm’s way and they are good to have. But by gradually exposing your child to what they are afraid of in a positive manner, you allow them to develop more rational responses to them. By doing so, it allows them to have more control over their fears which, in turn, can allow them to feel more confident with the unknown and unpredictable.
“7 Phobias That Make Halloween So Spooky“, Kevin Foss MFT. Psychology Today, Oct 07, 2020.
“Why Halloween Terrifies Some Kids“, Jeanna Bryner. Live Science, October 28, 2009.
“What is Sensory Defensiveness?“. North Shore Pediatric Therapy.
“Could the Moro Reflex Be the Root Cause of Sensory Issues?”, Bonnie Landau. Special Mom Advocate, Mar 28, 2018.
“The Reflexes – Moro reflex“. Rhythmic Movement Training International.
“Goddard, S. (2005). Reflexes, Learning and Behavior: A Window Into the Child’s Mind, 2nd Ed. Eugene, OR: Fern Ridge Press.