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10 Tips for Fewer Meltdowns on Halloween

Halloween is just around the corner! For many kids, it's a time of great joy, excitement, and adventure as they dress up, run around with their friends, and get as much free candy as their little arms can carry in those oversized pillowcases!

Halloween is Different for Kids who Struggle with Behaviour Problems

If you have a child who has behaviour challenges, Halloween can be the ultimate nightmare as your child has to dress up, is running around in big crowds of friends, and gets as much free candy as their little arms can carry... If you have a child who is fearful of costumes or skeletons and spiders and other creepy things jumping out at them, has sensory issues with different clothing, gets dysregulated in crowds, doesn't do well with lack of structure, and becomes overstimulated by all the sights, sounds, and...well...candy... you are already like most parents of children like this, and anticipating with great anxiety what Halloween night will look like for your child and for you.
You're already reassuring your child that the costumes aren't real and the creepy decorations can't get them. You will start your Halloween evening already trying to calm your child after a daycare or preschool or kindergarten day full of chaos and sugar. The costume fitting will end in a fight, as you desperately try to make it fit just right while your child repeatedly tells you it "feels bad". You will set out for an evening of what is supposed to be a fun-filled night of trick-or-treating, already exhausted and irritated. As you set out down the street, your child will hesitate at the first door, not wanting to leave your side. You will have to convince them the strangers at the door handing out candy (the very kind of "stranger danger" you tell your child to stay away from on a typical day) will not hurt them or steal them. After they come back beaming with a great big chocolate bar or bag of chips, the anxiety will wane and you will think you are in the clear, until three houses down, your child sees a group of monsters or the worst imaginable costume. You will try distraction, but your child will see, and will cry and cling to you, yet still want to keep going and getting more candy. You will finally walk your little one up to the next door, still clinging to your leg. Once the candy reward becomes distracting enough to let go of you, you will be back on track. Then your child joins a group of neighborhood friends, and the inevitable fights begin about who got more candy and whose costume is better, and who gets to go to the door first, and who pushed who... and on...and on. You get the arguments sorted and continue on, after apologizing to the other parents and going your separate ways, feeling guilty and ashamed and angry, and also saddened that your little one is alienating himself from his friends. She's not a bad kid... she just has such a hard time getting along with other kids in a big group. When it's time to go home, your little one doesn't want to stop. Your child's bag isn't full, and the fact that the clock says 8:30 means nothing when there are still kids on the street, jack-o-lanterns lit up on the doorsteps, and lights on at the houses. Your child fights your every attempt, until you end up carrying your little one, the mask that was thrown to the ground, and the oversized candy bag all the way back home, enduring kicking and screaming, crying and pleading, the entire way back. It doesn't end there. Once inside your house, your little one grabs at the candy bag, dumping it all over the middle of the living room floor. Besides, it's Halloween, and every kid should get to eat as much candy as they want on Halloween! You don't know what to do. After all, you want your child to enjoy the fruits (or candies!) of his labour, but you know you're only delaying the inevitably meltdown when it's bedtime, no matter how many tootsie roll's and candy corn and rockets and suckers have been eaten. And then.... bedtime. And that's when the real tantrum starts - you're the WORST. MOM. EVER! Every other kids gets to stay up late and eat all the candy they want. And your child has to go to bed... Your child refuses to get pyjamas on, refuses to brush her teeth, and finally, you can't even hold back anymore. You yell at her to just GET TO BED already! As you plop down on the couch stuffing your face with the real sized chocolate bars and bags of chips, you feel like a failure as you listen to your child cry himself to sleep, and replay the evening over and over through your mind, wondering why everything - even what's supposed to be the fun stuff - has to always be such a fight.

Help Your Child have Fewer Meltdowns on Halloween

If you can relate to any of that, here are a few tips that might help you avoid playing out your anticipations of what your Halloween night will look like again this year.

Tip #1: Get a good night's sleep the night before

You know Halloween will be full of chaos and excitement, which is exhausting enough for adults, never mind kids! Help your child cope better with their day by making sure they face it well-rested.

Tip #2: Limit the sugary stuff during the day

Don't get me wrong, class parties are awesome! But when you have a child that is particularly reactive to foods high in sugar or other non-nutritious substances, they will be set up for failure if these things are consumed in large quantities throughout the day. If your child is home with you, that can be easy enough to monitor. If your child is somewhere else during the day, it is a good idea to speak with your child's daycare provider or Teacher to find out what the class party might entail, and to figure out a way to allow your child to have fun and maybe a treat or two, without going overboard.

Tip #3: Take a break from the chaos

Having a nap or quiet time with relaxing activities between the business of the day and the chaos of trick-or-treating, can help calm your child enough to be able to get them through the night with fewer meltdowns.

Tip #4: Have a nutritious supper

Hungry kids are almost as cranky as tired kids... Make sure to eat supper before you head out for the night. If you have a good, healthy supper, your child will have the energy they need to get through the evening, and (bonus!) be full and will likely binge a lot less on the sugary stuff later on.

Tip #5: Talk about the scary stuff

If your child becomes scared and anxious around certain costumes or freaky decorations, or taking candy from strangers, then the best thing you can do is to talk about it. Let your child know that you are aware of their fears (or ask if they have any), that they are safe, and that you will be there to help them if they don't feel safe. Make a plan with your child on how you will cope if there are scary things that come up. For example, if your child sees a scary costume, make a plan they can point to it, and you will take their hand and cross the street, or hold them tight and snuggle them until it's gone. Talk about the difference between taking candy from strangers on Halloween, versus everyday life, and the things your child can do to keep herself safe when trick-or-treating.

Tip #6: Be realistic about your expectations

Just because it's Halloween, doesn't mean your child's fears or sensory issues or difficulties with unstructured times or friends or transitions will just disappear like a ghost. They will still be there. Sometimes, you just want so badly to make perfect memories with your family on these big, special occasions, that you can unintentionally create more stress than there would have been if it was just a regular day. Remember that your child still has struggles, and try to be patient and meet those needs. Even though the Facebook and Instagram photos on all your friends' feeds would indicate otherwise, Halloween is not all fun and laughter and good times. Expect some bumps in your day, so that you can manage them in the right mindset, instead of feeling that the entire evening is a failure because of some difficulties along the way. Also, don't expect your child to walk around five blocks without complaining if they don't normally like to walk for more than 10 seconds. And don't expect your child will be able to stay up extra late if you know they get cranky around 7:00pm. Make sure to set yourself up for success by thinking ahead of time about what your child is capable of, and adjusting your plans to try to meet those needs.

Tip #7: Make a plan and share it with your child

Let your child know ahead of time what to expect, including:
  • when you will be leaving: for younger kids, use something concrete such as saying you will be leaving after supper, instead of at 6:30pm
  • where you will be going: just around the neighborhood or are there other places you plan to drive to or visit?
  • how long you will be gone for or when you will be returning home: after we go around two blocks, when the clock says seven zero zero, when the first number on the clock turns to a 7, when your candy fills this much of your bag or bucket
  • what will be expected when they get back home: you can have two pieces of candy, then it's time to get ready for bed.
This is particularly helpful for kids with anxiety or who struggle with transitions. For younger kids, you might want to use a visual schedule for this, or an app to help them follow your night step-by-step. Remind them of what is to come throughout the evening. Your child will be much more likely to comply with a transition or a request if she knows it is coming, as opposed to being asked out of the blue to go home when she's in the middle of filling her bag with candy!

Tip #8: Acknowledge the good stuff

If your child struggles with sensory, emotional, or behavioural challenges, she's probably even more anxious about Halloween night than you are - and will be wanting everything to go just perfectly as well. She's probably trying her very best to make sure she gets to spend this fun time with you, and of course - gets lots of free candy! Acknowledge how much she is trying. Give your child lots of specific, positive feedback. If your child puts her mask on and gives a little grunt, acknowledge that you understand it's tough for her to have something on her face, but you are so proud of how she put it on gently, and asked for help to adjust it. If your child points at a scary thing and jumps into your arms, let him know you are so proud of him for following the plan, and for trusting you to keep him safe.

Tip #9: Deal calmly with the not so good stuff

Take a deep breath, count to ten, talk to yourself in your mind, do whatever you need to do to remain calm when dealing with the challenging behaviour. Have a plan for what you might do if your child gets too scared, has fights with friends, or becomes angry and defiant when it's time to go home. If you have a plan in place for how to deal with the difficult behaviour (take a break, skip the next three houses, carry your child home calmly), you will be much less likely to overreact (that's it - no Halloween for you this year - it's cancelled - now go to bed!) and make empty threats (you can't get along with your friends even on Halloween! You're never going anywhere with other kids again!).

Tip #10: Follow through on your expectations and your promises

If you told your child they could have two treats out of their treat bag when they get home, follow through with that (unless, of course, you're carrying them through the door kicking and screaming - you probably don't want to reward the behaviour with a couple of chocolate bars as soon as you step foot into the house, or you will very likely see a repeat of the same behaviour in the near future...). Not only should you follow through, even if it's a bit later than you expected to get home, but you also should be firm on your expectations (when your child begs and pleads his case for "just one more" remind him of your agreement and redirect to what they are to be doing next). Plan ahead for realistic and age-appropriate back-up consequences if your child doesn't follow the rules or meet the expectations, and make sure you follow through. Allow your child opportunities in the near future to try again if they didn't meet expectations. If you found this post helpful, please forward or share, or even comment on the most helpful tip for you or your little ones.

Happy Halloween!