Halloween; there doesn't appear to be much of a middle ground. It seems people either love it or despise it. Young children may feel especially vulnerable as a barrage of images of scary monsters, creeping zombies and horrific creatures suddenly appear. There are steps parents can take to help reduce the anxiety and stress that young and sensitive children may experience at Halloween.

1. Reality vs fantasy

Realize that young children can't distinguish between reality and fantasy until they are between the ages of 3 and 5, according to research at The University of Texas at Austin. They are constantly exposed to "new information through conversations, books and the media." Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the university, headed research that found that children by age 4 learn to distinguish between fact and fiction by the context in which new information is presented.

Parents can reduce fear in kids by avoiding scary or gory movies or television shows. There are plenty of child-friendly shows such as mild Halloween-themed cartoons for the young ones and suspenseful but-not-evil ones for older children. Be aware that many children are exposed to negative media at a friend's or neighbor's house. It is a good idea to have a plan for a child to gracefully bow out of an uncomfortable situation by giving them permission to leave and a good excuse to always have handy.

2. Curate your family's Halloween experience

Decorate with bright oranges, yellows and other friendly colors. If you want a dopamine "kick," skip the adrenaline rush of the macabre and look for humor or novelty by substituting more wholesome themes. A few easy and popular ones include incorporating cheerful harvest icons such as grinning Jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows and farm favorites like apples and corn, or fall forest themes like squirrels, owls and acorns. If you like the castle idea, make it a cheery medieval castle with lots of candles and glow-in-the-dark items and fun "magical" accoutrements. Other fun themes include candy land (sorry dentists), a high-tide Halloween, Halloween has gone to the dogs or a magical forest. Take a favorite family book or theme and add pumpkins and cheery autumn decor and watch the magic take place.

3. Avoid the macabre

Don't take your children to "haunted" houses, costume stores with gruesome props or theme parks that provide more scare than your child wants or needs. You might choose to host a Halloween carnival with a positive theme like "come into the pumpkin patch." Our church group hosted Halloween carnivals for years for about 200 children on a $200 budget. The genius idea (not mine) was to rent a bounce house and have families donate candy and small toys for prizes. We bought harvest decor just before Christmas at 90 percent off and invited volunteers to create and host games and activities.

If your children trick-or-treat, go with them or provide mature guardians to accompany them.

4. Find child-friendly alternatives

The French observe an autumn holiday called La Toussaint to honor their departed ancestors. You might follow their tradition by visiting a graveyard (during the day) where family members are interred. Tidy the plots, take flowers, tell stories about departed loved ones and make it a positive, even sacred experience. Then, follow the French tradition of returning home for a warm and happy harvest dinner and games.

5. Remove witches and scary creatures from your decor

Let children know that the only power curses, spells and hexes have over them is what they allow. Remind children that monsters are make-believe. You might switch out witches for Mother Goose and her charming tales. Keep communications open; don't mock their concerns, but explain where traditions come from and be willing to choose the ones that best fit your children.

Autumn can be a lovely time of fun and fantasy when you enjoy the beauty of the changing leaves, visit a pumpkin patch, make or buy costumes and discover child-friendly activities and decor. As you enjoy the creativity and whimsy of fall you will be giving your children enrichment and traditions with memories to light their lives.

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