A Halloween Epiphany: It wasn’t the candy. It was the costumes!
Halloween used to be the absolute WORST time of year for our family. Everywhere we turned there were reminders of trauma. There is no escaping them, especially at this time of year. They are in the schools, the stores, the neighbor’s yards, and all too often they even show up at church.
For many years, from the moment the Halloween decorations started to appear in the stores in mid-September until after the dreaded day had finally passed and we blissfully welcomed the reprieve of November, my kids went bonkers. Their anxiety and anger went through the roof, crazy rages abounded, and we lived in an all-out war zone. Over the years, we have adapted many different therapeutic tools to meet our needs at home.
One of our consistent favorites has been our own homemade version of a sand tray. We have had great success in using it as a means of expression when words and inhibitions otherwise get in the way. As I was watching my son create a sand tray scene a few years ago, I had a major epiphany regarding Halloween. As he created his story scene, it was pretty clear there was still a lot of confusion for him between good guys and bad guys. Sadly, that isn’t uncommon for many kids. After all, the bad guys in their life weren’t ALWAYS bad…and the good guys aren’t always sweet and nice, either.
Let’s face it. We’re human. Sometimes we get frustrated and scared and overwhelmed ourselves. Sometimes we act in ways that don’t always reflect who we are, what we know, how we truly feel, or what our best behavior really can and ought to be. This was my big epiphany, though. As I watched my son’s scene develop, I realized why seeing people dressed up in costumes – any costumes (even if they are fun and cute and silly) – is so triggering and so frightening for my kids. When people are all dressed up and pretending to be something or someone they’re not (and especially if their face is hidden and/or they are otherwise unrecognizable), my kids can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys!
For real. They honestly cannot make the distinction. Once their regular frame of reference is removed or change, they lose their ability to determine who is safe and who isn’t. When they can no longer tell if someone is safe or not, they revert back to the old tapes that play in their heads – their life scripts – you know, the ones that dictate they should be afraid of everyone and everything. Since their top priority is always safety and survival, they revert to believing that no one but themselves can be trusted and never knowing when or if they’re going to be hurt again.
We learned the hard way this is true even if that costumed person is someone they know to be safe otherwise. In fact, we learned it often did more damage when they knew the person! My kids are extremely concrete thinkers. Everything is either black or white to them. They couldn’t and still don’t understand why a good guy would sometimes pretend to be a bad guy. Part of that is because they didn’t always understand the difference between fantasy and reality.
Especially when they were younger, once they saw one of their good guys looking like a bad guy, it would take a very long time to rebuild the trust they had in that person. This was true of teachers, neighbors, church people, and unfortunately, even their grandparents.
Hopefully sharing this little epiphany will help many of you reading understand your own little sweeties a little better. It’s not the candy that’s the real trigger. It’s the costumes! Check out how we started diffusing some of those triggers and what we now do instead of Halloween.