Halloween ranks up there as one of the most anticipated nights of the year, for kids and adults alike. With all the pumpkin carving, costumes and unlimited candy — what’s not to love?

The truth is, Halloween can be equal parts fun and overwhelming for children who are new to foster care or who have any history of abuse, neglect or other trauma. Read on to learn why this could be, plus ways foster parents can make Halloween both safe and sweet for the children in their care.

Joining a foster family means big changes, with a new home, new rules and more. Meanwhile, children in foster care are likely missing their biological parent(s), and any semblance of fun — like a major holiday — might feel like a betrayal. What’s more, the chemicals our bodies produce in a stressful situation are the same ones given off during a fun, exciting situation. This chemical release can trigger memories of past trauma.

All this change or excitement can lead to reactions such as anxiety, outburst of anger or withdrawing from people. But with a little preparation, you can help prevent problems on Halloween night. The following tips will help you prepare for a Halloween to remember.

  1. Tell kids what to expect. Anxiety is often driven by the unknown, so clue kids in to what’s ahead. Share key information such as: Which events or places will you be going to? Who else will be there? What should they say when trick-or-treating? Consider walking your planned trick-or-treating route in daylight ahead of time. If your child seems hesitant about any of your plans, adjust accordingly.
  2. Embrace fun over scary. When faced with scary decorations and costumes, young children with a history of trauma may have trouble recognizing what’s real and what’s pretend. Halloween is about so much more than skeletons and monsters, so choose items on the humorous or light-hearted side.
  3. Use your senses. Children with sensory issues may have trouble in environments that are dark, loud or crowded. Flashing lights and itchy costumes could also be an unwelcome trigger. If this is true of the child in your home, you may need to avoid certain activities and stimuli for a sensory-friendly Halloween. If your child is shy or struggles to express themselves verbally, know that special cards printed with “Trick or Treat” exist for this very purpose.
  4. Lay the ground rules. It’s normal for parents to loosen the rules on holidays. But you should still outline what Halloween looks like in your household, especially if this is a child’s first time experiencing it with you. Will you expect the group to stick together? How much candy can they eat that night? Will you inspect their trick-or-treating hauls before they can dig in? When is bedtime? Decide on the rules and clearly communicate them.
  5. Remember safety first. It’s not every day that you visit other people’s homes in the dark wearing superhero masks. Use this opportunity to reinforce safety basics that will serve children well any time of year. Think: Wearing reflective clothing, looking both ways before crossing the street, not accepting rides from strangers and so on. If you have a teen who will be driving on Halloween, talk to them about taking it extra slow on the streets.
  6. Be inclusive. Halloween traditions have a way of bringing out the differences in many kids, from food allergies to diabetes to autism. Be kind and patient, explaining things as necessary in age-appropriate ways. This lesson in inclusion will hopefully make the children in your care feel more accepted in their own new environment as well.
  7. Adjust your expectations. As a foster parent, you can expect the kids in your care to become overwhelmed and tired easily. Set the bar low, such as trick-or-treating on one block instead of the entire neighborhood. It’s better to have a memorable half-hour of fun than to push on and potentially trigger intense emotions. You might even decide to stay home for a not-so-scary movie night — do whatever feels right!

The Spirit of Halloween

October 31 is a day (and night!) to make special childhood memories. The key is to be both intentional and flexible with your plans. Recognize the unique needs of children in foster care and meet them where they are, and soon you’ll be forging new traditions as a foster family. Visit Foster in Texas and check out our training calendar for more resources, designed just for foster parents.

Sources: “Safe and Sweet 2021 Halloween” deck from FIT; Foster VA; Camelot Care Centers; Hope Connections; Northeast Ohio Parent

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