Is My Child Too Young for a Haunted House?
Expert advice about how kids see the world to help you figure out what's appropriate for your child at Halloween
Photo courtesy of Ilkin Zeferli/Shutterstock.com
Q. My family wants to visit a haunted house, but I'm concerned about our youngest, my 7-year-old. How can I tell if she would be too scared?
A. Halloween is filled with both the potential for fun and healthy excitement and for fear and unhealthy overexcitement. Halloween challenges parents to find the balance between protecting children from scary, overwhelming experiences and permitting them to have fun, growth-promoting experiences. Understanding some of the ways children see the world may help with this dilemma.
Understanding Monster Fears
Most children encounter monsters long before age 7. Many 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds worry about monsters as well as robbers, vampires, kidnapers and bad guys, all of which are monsters by other names. Parents are generally perplexed by the appearance of these fears, especially if the child has not had any direct experience with robbers or with people doing monster-like things.
The secret to understanding this monster mystery is that children have met monsters because they know themselves. They know that they wish to do wrong things, have done wrong things, and have rather outrageous and even destructive thoughts. By packaging and exporting these feelings into the persona of a monster, robber or other bad guy, children can face and grow beyond these feelings. Children invent monsters because they need them, and they generally relinquish their fears as they become more confident about their own feelings and impulses. Even though children are afraid of monsters, they become little directors who bring the monsters on the scene and tell them when to leave the stage or return for a curtain call.
Recognizing Pretend Versus Reality
Children grow over time to know the difference between real and pretend. Their ability to truly tell the difference can be deceptive. A 4-year-old may say that unicorns are not real, but will be very excited if told that one is in the backyard. A 6-year-old may giggle over that prospect without even asking, "Unicorns are not real, right?" Yet a small doubt might remain even at age 6.
Determining a Child's Readiness
Parents are always making decisions about their child's readiness for a next step. They decide if their child is ready to go on a play date without them, use the potty, join a T-ball team, or manage a potentially scary situation. Because the negative impacts of failures are much greater than the positive impacts of successes, we recommend that parents support next steps only when they are 90 percent confident that the child can meet the challenge. If a parent is unsure about a child's readiness, it is best to wait and protect the child from discouraging or even frightening experiences.
Specific Considerations for Scary Fun
We advise parents to wait until a child is 7 before considering a haunted house visit. Younger children will not sufficiently understand reality to know — and feel — that the haunted house is totally make-believe. Allowing a younger child to brave the terrors of a haunted house would not follow the 90 percent confidence rule.
Your 7-year-old may or may not be ready to enjoy healthy fun in a haunted house. The answers to the following questions can help you decide whether you have 90 percent confidence about her readiness:
- Has she generally been free from anxieties and worries?
- Has she been exposed to milder frightening pretend situations, such as mildly scary movies, and found them fun?
- Does she try to keep up with her older siblings, and might this affect her judgment about whether she feels ready?
Preparing for a Haunted Visit
If you reach the 90 percent confidence level, we recommend that you keep in mind that your daughter will not be the director of this monster drama. She will be in the audience, absorbing whatever frights the haunted house throws at her. Whatever you can do to help her prepare for the haunted house and feel more active and in control will increase the possibility that she will have a positive experience.
Preparation and anticipation might take some of the fun out of it for teenagers and adults, but not for your school-age child. Tell your daughter about the events in the haunted house. It would be best if one of her parents could go through the house first and report to her what she should expect. A parent should go with her and be ready to offer any support she might need. If she freaks out in the house, you can suggest that she close her eyes, hold her hand and lead her out, or even carry her if possible.
You have the double challenge of balancing the various needs and interests of different children and balancing the opportunities and obstacles of Halloween. Weigh your 7-year-old's readiness using our guidelines, remembering that 90 percent is a high level of confidence. Hold strong if she is pushing and you don't think she's ready for a haunted house visit this year.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question of the month may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions.