Surviving Halloween, by Rhett Lively
If I’m honest, Halloween is not the easiest holiday. The costumes, spooky references, crowds, and opportunities for people to do tricky things just don’t make me want to get out and have fun.
But culturally Halloween is something our kids expect, look forward to, and mostly enjoy. So, in keeping with their expectations and the promise in every service plan to give them opportunities for normalcy and culturally-appropriate activities, we make the best of it.
On the positive side, trick-or-treating, block parties, trunk-or-treats, and costumes do make for good memories. Looking back, our foster children will remember the laughter, the fun and games, and the candy as a moment in our homes filled with joy and laughter in an otherwise traumatizing moment in their lives. We too will have memories and pictures to look back on and remember moments not arguing for their best interests or fighting for much-needed services.
But for our kids, all of whom are cursed with trauma and fears they never asked for, Halloween is hard. Monsters triggering nightmares. Sights, sounds, smells, and sugar overloading their senses. Even the occasional scream of a good fright in the night can induce PTSD in a child who’s heard those sounds too often in their little lives.
So their culture and normalcy say we need to immerse them in the festivities, but their trauma has you playing that scene from “Lost in Space”…
DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!
Leading us to head off the triggers.
Heading off the Triggers
While there is a catch-22 with balancing the normalcy of culture and the chaos of a trauma-triggered child, there are five things we can do to mitigate the latter.
- Give them an out. Let your kids know that it’s okay to feel like they need to get away from a party, group, or event, and they don’t need to be embarrassed about asking for that to happen. If they are worried about what their friends might think, come up with a signal they can give you, so you can be the reason they leave. This isn’t only for Halloween. Make this a normal part of every day for you and your family. Let your kids know that you understand sometimes there are things that make them nervous or anxious and it’s okay to need to take a step back. If they know the option is there, not only will they be more relaxed as they enter a new situation, but they are less likely to flip their lids in those moments when things start getting to them.
- Have coping mechanisms on hand. Our son is autistic, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that going into something new, loud, or filled with bright lights is going to overload his senses and start behavioral issues. Over time and trials, we’ve learned that a music list filled with Skillet, Five Finger Death Punch, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Audio A is one thing that helps him drown all that chaos out and make it through those initial moments of anxiety. Most of the time if we can just get through those first few moments, he sheds the music and engages without incident. For your child it may be music, it may be a stuffed animal, whatever it is that brings them comfort, helps them focus and drown out the extra noise around them, let them bring it along and have it nearby just in case.
- Desensitize. While I feel like there is too much of this going on in our world with video games and violence there are some things we do need to help our children get used to so that they understand the difference between reality and make-believe. Tell stories, talk about how monsters, ghosts, and the like are made up to help create the fun and mystic of Halloween, and the people they’ll see that night may look scary, but really are just out trying to have fun. But don’t belittle their fears either. Many of our children have experienced real monsters in their lives in the forms of abuse, neglect, anger, and violence. They have good reasons to fear those things.
- Set the boundaries and stick to them. Halloween will mess with a household routine by the nature of being something done at night. For younger children, this will probably mean their bedtimes will happen later than normal, for older children this means going out with friends to trick-or-treat or go to a Halloween party. While giving them a bit of room to enjoy the night is a normal part of most kids’ lives, we will need to let them know there are limits to what they can and should do. Plan the route for trick-or-treating. Let them know which houses they will be going to and how late they can be out. While I know many teens would hate me for this, keep tabs on them even if you do let them go trick-or-treating with friends. Have them check in on a regular basis, knowing that if they miss a check-in there will be consequences.
- Steal the candy! No, I’m not kidding. Now I don’t mean rob your kids and never let them enjoy the fruits of begging for candy door-to-door but do have a plan to exchange the candy for something less stimulating. (Because we all know sugar triggers…EVERYTHING!) Set up an exchange. Whether it’s by piece, by weight, or by type. Offer to exchange the candy they bring home for a new toy or book. This will help stop the chaos of sugar overload, remove the temptation, and help you keep some peace in a time that could get quite chaotic. The candy can be saved for other things or simply snuck to the office for those moments when you need a pick-me-up when no one is looking!
We never know when or where a trigger is going to hit a child and a holiday like Halloween increases the odds of a rough day by unknown factors. Be ready for it and know it could happen over something seemingly insignificant, for reasons never-before-seen, and likely when you least expect it. If you’re willing to roll with it while staying calm and be flexible in the moment, you’ll find that those moments will get easier and easier to manage as time goes by.
Rhett Lively is a foster dad whose primary job is to care for the foster children in his home, along with his wife, Bailey. The things he has learned along the way are shared on his blog, www.lighthouseforwanderingsouls.com – to encourage those who are considering opening up their homes to children in need and ministering to families in crisis. He hopes his stories inspire people who’ve never considered the journey. Foster care is a journey – one that has taken him to places he never imagined spiritually, physically, and emotionally over the last four years. Join him. Come walk the path he is still exploring. It will change you forever.