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Mixing fears with play on Halloween: how we do the same with scary feelings for children with CHD

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

Austin E. Wilmot, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

Halloween is a fun time for many children and families. Pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating, haunted houses, wearing costumes—these are some of the common traditions that bring friends, family and neighbors together. There is a kind of playful, creative outlet available during Halloween unlike other holidays. This article considers how playful aspects of the Halloween experience function as meaningful windows into a child's mind, including the inner, emotional world of the child with CHD.

Thinking below the surface of Halloween

With Halloween, children have the opportunity and invitation to dress up in their costume of choice, which can hold psychological meaning to that child. Is it a superhero of theirs or something or someone that has made a large impression on them? Is it an animal or bug that they’ve identified with—that’s good at hiding, flying free or moving fast? Or, is it a more generic object, like a computer, a book, a skeleton, a ghost? For what reasons did they choose their particular costume? What fantasies and stories are told about this person, character or thing? Pretending to be someone or something else is an important element of play—playing through an identification with the other. If we are open to learning a little bit more about the child’s inner world and being curious with them, that superhero (or nurse, doctor or bug) costume might mean a lot more to them than you thought. A child's expression of themselves during Halloween is their form of talking about themselves in a play format. Similar to a past article that made use of the idea of a child's "broadcast"--what is your child broadcasting during Halloween time about themselves?

In addition, children have the opportunity to both enter into risks that will purposefully eventuate feeling scared, and, also, be the ones in control of the source of fear and frighten others. Does a child not have a liking for haunted houses and scary things, or is she wanting more and more of these suspenseful experiences? Does he more often want to scare someone else or be the one to be scared? Are any of the “scary situations” repeated over and over in an enjoyable way? Again, what are the fantasies and stories told about the encounters with fear or causing someone else to be afraid? How a child goes about handling their anxiety and fear or scaring someone else may tell us something about that child’s history with fearful and uncertain experiences. To think more about this, let's consider how this shows up within psychotherapy.

In the therapy situation

The below anonymized and altered account of a therapy process extends these ideas into the therapeutic relationship with a child's therapist:

In therapy, Johnny (anonymized) came into his sessions with his superhero costume on almost every session. Over time, it became apparent that the costume, while a favorite character of his that he really wanted the therapist to see, also served to protect him from his fears of the therapist as a “feelings doctor”, as he called him. The costume served as a kind of armor from being seen, hiding vulnerabilities yet to be exposed. This child, having had scary experiences with doctors earlier in life, was, on a certain level, terrified of being in the room with the therapist. Further sessions helped him to eventually lower his defenses against letting someone in to his inner world that could perhaps this time be helpful without the fears of attack and intrusions that were so imprinted upon his early experiences. Because of this child’s love for costumes, later use of a doctor costume and having the therapist take on various (pretend) roles of doctor, surgeon, nurse, mother, father, and others, this child was able to mix big, scary feelings with play in order to find words for his experiences, making those feelings smaller and gaining mastery of his prior traumatic experiences in the process. A reversing of roles such that he was the surgeon doing "surgery" to the therapist was also involved. In this way, he was able to help the therapist to feel things from his own experience that he so desperately wanted someone else to understand and help find the words and thoughts for. It was important that the therapist be a "narrator" for all that was unfolding in the room throughout the therapy process. The parents were supported in understanding these developments in the therapy and also engaged in their own work to address their own issues and blind spots.

A way to be with big, scary feelings

Mixing play with scary or difficult feelings can offer a child another avenue to express what has not been expressible, while also giving a chance for the child to be understood (and perhaps helped to find the words for their experience). Parents who can jump into their child's world through play and use their own critical thinking about what is going on are doing a very helpful thing. If you noticed your child crashing toy cars together recently, would you have caught that maybe it relates to the car wreck your child witnessed or experienced a month ago? Or, could it be a manifestation of a conflict and anger felt about something going on at home? Maybe the child would benefit from you joining in and helping to narrate what might be going on. See where it goes! You can't go wrong. If you are "off-base" with what is going on, your child will likely re-direct you. Take a moment to think about your own stance towards big, scary feelings and whether joining in on the play might be your ticket to greater understanding for both child and parent.

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