Last Fall, our three-year-old son Nathan’s favourite book was ”The Three Little Pigs.” Many afternoons were spent with Nathan pretending to be the piggy with the straw house while Emma, our five-year-old daughter, was the piggy with the wood house and Mom was the piggy with the brick house (the secure benchmark, the answer to worries). Dad played the big bad wolf. We replayed the story many times and while it evoked a lot of alarm in our children, it was evoked in play and was thus exploratory, expressive and imaginary…and lots of fun!
As Nathan was particularly drawn to playing with alarm, another activity he enjoyed around this time was going to the store to see the Halloween decorations. Although Emma was a bit afraid of the monster and witch costumes, Nathan never seemed ready to leave! The routine was always the same: to walk in front of a scary costume, to pretend to be afraid and then to flee into the next aisle. Like the piggy play described above, this was another playful context that allowed our children to develop a relationship with their alarm; a chance to bring something a little bit scary into the safe world of play.
Recently, however, Nathan is feeling less playful about his fears; the intensity of feeling afraid has increased. He often asks us if there are (big bad) wolves close to our house and he tries to reassure himself by asserting that our house is made of brick and that we have no chimney. He does not want to play alone in the basement or go to the bathroom if the light is off. This year, the kids were very excited to visit a new Halloween store but when we arrived at the store Nathan clung to us and was completely seized by the alarm; this was a very different experience than last year’s playful time in the Halloween store.
Before now Nathan rarely showed signs of fear. Adults often associate the absence of fear with the presence of courage; we often had people tell us that Nathan is not afraid of anything and that he is very brave. In fact, Nathan is not a brave child, he was simply not at a point in his development where he could fully feel fear. Certainly, he was moved by the alarm but it was not fully transposed into a feeling of fear. Now, however, because he is able to fully feel his fear, he is afraid of many things.
Halloween is coming in a few days. When it’s time to go out and knock on our neighbors’ doors, we expect that Nathan will be very excited at first, however it is very likely that fear will come when he finds himself in the dark surrounded by ghosts and witches. When that happens, he will probably insist on going home and it will be impossible to convince him to do otherwise. And so, like with many families with four-year-olds, the candy harvest may not be a success this year. Our priority as parents will be to normalize the situation and ensure that the evening ends in a context of secure connection where the alarm can safely come out.
Courage requires the ability to mix two feelings: desire and fear. In order to be “brave” on Halloween night, and to continue with trick-or-treating, Nathan would need to be able to mix his fear of Halloween decorations with his desire to receive candy. The ability to mix feelings is not present until five years of age, at the earliest; Nathan is simply not there yet.
So this year we will simply appreciate the fact that Nathan is able to express, name and feel fully his fears. We will wait patiently for the season of courage to arrive, which one day (maybe even next Halloween!) will allow him to tame his fear in service of his desire for candy!
We wish you all a Happy Halloween!