What my special needs kids taught me about costume triggers…
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 traumatized kids went bonkers. Their anxiety and anger went through the roof, crazy rages abounded, and we lived in an all-out war zone.
Score for Homemade Therapeutic Tools!
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 specifically related to his big feelings about Halloween, I had a major epiphany! It was quite 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. And let’s face it. As parents, we are 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.
My Halloween Epiphany!
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 (especially if their face is hidden and/or they are otherwise unrecognizable), my kids who experienced early childhood trauma 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 changed, they lose their ability to determine who is safe and who isn’t. When they can no longer tell if someone is a safe person 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 can be trusted except themselves and they never know when or if they’re going to be hurt again.
The triggers lasted far beyond Halloween!
We learned the hard way that the damage of those triggers lasted long after Halloween was over. This was especially true if that costumed person is someone they know to be safe otherwise. Especially when my kids 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.
My hurt 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.
It wasn’t the candy!
For a long time, we thought it was the candy and all the other stuff that was causing a sensory overload for my kids. While yes, all that stuff does add to the chaos, it wasn’t the driving force. It wasn’t the candy. It was the costumes! Hopefully sharing this little epiphany will help many of you reading understand your own little sweeties a little better.