A child’s first trip though a haunted house can be a thrilling test of childhood courage where fears are faced and conquered…or a nightmare-inducing disaster, depending on whether they’re ready. Here’s how to navigate that miniature minefield this Halloween.
Know your child’s limits for horror
Like most things child-related, there’s no specific age of haunted-house-readiness. “It’s not like ‘ready to go into a haunted house’ is a developmental milestone,” explains Dr. Heather Bernstein, a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorder Centre at Child Mind Institute. “All kids are different, and all kids are ready for things at different ages.”
To determine whether your little snowflake is ready for a haunted mansion, your best bet is to listen to them. “I’d start with the child showing interest,” Bernstein said. “If they’re walking by a haunted house and get curious, or they ask about an advertisement for one, talk to them about it.”
Of course, kids sometimes get a little over their skis when it comes to how much seasonal fright they can actually handle, so it’s up to you to judge whether they’re really ready, and not just thinking they’re ready.
“Look at how they respond to other types of thing that might be scary, like a mask or a scarecrow,” Bernstein suggests. “How do they seem to be responding to those less intense cues? That is some indication of how they’re going to do when they’re fully in a haunted house.”
Know your haunted house, because they vary
Haunted attractions, from hayrides to dark-rides, run the gamut from child-friendly attractions like Los Angeles’ kid-friendly (and delightful) Griffith Park Ghost Train, to only-for-adults “extreme” haunted houses, so before you buy a ticket for your little one, make sure you know what they’re getting into. Check the attractions webpage, give them a call, and ask about the recommended age. You can also ask other parents what their kids thought about it.
Share the experience with your kid
If you decide your kid is ready to be scared, you probably should go in with them, especially if they’re little. If not, let them invite brave friends or siblings along. A haunted house is much more fun when you share it.
“If you go through together, afterwards, you laugh about it, and kind of make fun of each other about it. I think it can be a bonding experience,” Bernstein said.
When should you give a little push at the entrance?
If your child is excited to visit a haunted house, but balks at the entrance, you need to do a little soul-searching about whether it’s a good idea for you to encourage them to face their fear, or just hang the whole thing up and come back next year.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘why am I asking my child to do this? Am I pushing them to do something that they might not be ready for?’” Bernstein said.
“If you know it’s something they really want to do, and they’ll be really disappointed afterwards if they don’t do it, then maybe you can coach them and say something like, ‘We’ll go in, but we can alway leave,’ or ‘We’ll go in and I’m going to hold your hand the whole time.’” Bernstein said.
What to do if the haunted house is just too much
If both you and your child misjudge the amount of fright they can handle, and your kid freaks out, don’t panic: Kids are resilient. The outcome is way more likely to be a few nightmares than full blown trauma, and there are ways of helping them cope with their fear.
“Do they need help understanding what the heck they just went through? In that case, that might mean going back to the haunted house, seeing it during the daylight, or talking about the fears that are coming up,” Bernstein said. “Maybe meet some of the actors that are in the house, so that kid starts to realise that this was something more like a play than something where they were truly in danger.”
It’s important to remember not to downplay the experience of a really freaked out child. “We have these adult brains that understand everything that’s going on, so the urge might be to say, ‘It wasn’t that scary. You’re being ridiculous.’” Bernstein said. “But understanding that, from their perspective, this was something that was really scary, and not minimising it, is going to get you a lot further in helping them process what happened.”