We spoke to Nicholas Strouse, LCSW, of Westport Family Counseling to get tips on handling tween's embarrassment of dressing up for Halloween, talking to your tween or teen about their inappropriate costume, and how to handle your teens mischievous Halloween behavior and pulling pranks on others.
What should I do if I think my 12-year-old wants to dress up for Halloween, but is afraid or embarrassed of what her peers might think?
I think there are a couple of answers, and it depends on how that 12-year-old socializes, what types of friends she has, and if she is part of any groups already. The first solution is, if your child has friends that she would like to trick-or-treat with, allow her to invite them over and go out with you, let her go with a bunch of friends and one of their parents, or let her and her friends trick-or-treat ahead of you, meaning you know where the group is—they’re two or three blocks ahead in the same neighborhood or at the friends house.
The second solution would be if your child does not have friends or there are other complications—they’re feeling lonely, they don't want to be left out but they don't want to be embarrassed—you still have to validate their feelings and accommodate them. Have some kind of trick-or-treat activity at home that doesn’t embarrass them. You really need to ask them how they feel and validate their feelings.
This is about life-stage development in a sense. When children reach 12 years old, they are often starting, or continuing, prominent individuation. They’re separating from parents and they often feel embarrassed, sometimes even alienated, by their family. It’s not that a parent, or the family, is doing something embarrassing. So getting embarrassed about how their parents behave or what costumes they’re wearing, or what house the family is going to go to because it's a tradition is normal, and it is really important to validate your child’s feelings. Therefore, I would accommodate the child.
How should I approach my child if I feel her costume is inappropriate?
This continues speaking to what I’ve been talking to you about, which is a life-stage development. But is also is very important to remain a parent and teach and regulate your child if she child is doing something unacceptable. Children sometimes feel as if they actually know what is acceptable because they live in a very closed world, a very self-centered world in a group of peers and these days through technology, even though they may know some people globally, it still feels like a closed community to them. She may feel she knows what is acceptable based on what’s become popular on TV, the Internet, etc., but there are still a lot of values that need to be regulated for a long time with children and teens.
While teens are good at regulating some of their emotions, they often cannot foresee how doing something, breaking a boundary, might affect them later. So if you have a child dressing in a way that is too provocative or in a way that is making apolitical statement that you feel could provoke someone to action, or hurt someone by being too biased, bigoted, or fundamental in some way, you need to step in and say, “I’m sorry, that is not acceptable. I realize that my telling you that you may not do this may make you feel separate from the rest of the group that is doing it. I realize that you feel I may have ruined your Halloween or you hate me know, but later I really do believe you’re going to understand that this could have affected you really badly. Not great things happen sometimes as a result of you just doing what you want to do, and even if you get away with it—meaning dressing provocatively doesn’t get you undue attention—you’re still taking risks which then open the gate to more risks later.” It is important to stay involved in that way and help children and teens become responsible.
Now, just an addendum to that: It is also important to look at yourself as a parent. There are times when children will want to dress up in something you think is inappropriate or perhaps risky, but sometimes you think this way based on your family of origin upbringing. Sometimes that family of origin upbringing was close-minded or it was too strict or it was kind of a punitive environment where anything that strayed from a certain clean-cut mold was not acceptable. So you can sometimes react to a teenager or child with your own shame, as if the child was representing you, and part of your job as a parent is to look at what it is you’re feeling and understand that you also have to let go. If you’re not so sure as to whether the costume is too risqué or too provocative, you should talk to your own peers, your spouse, and even seek a counselor. It could actually benefit the parent-child relationship if a parent was able to get past something that other people objectively felt was really the parent’s issue, not so much the child acting out. Again, it’s very important to help validate the child, but also provide the right boundaries.
How should I handle if I suspect that my older teenager is out pulling pranks on other people, such as toilet-papering a house, egging cars, or painting graffiti?
Times have changed a lot. I suppose if you were asking someone 20-30 years ago, they might, off the record, say to you, “Let them alone. It’s not a big deal. Its part of growing up, part of Halloween.” There is actually a valid point to that. I’m not condoning those activities, but children at that age or even older feel mischievous and impulsive and excited. Special Halloween events, parades, and parties bring those energies out even more, so children and teenagers are more likely to be anything from playful to mischievous to sometimes causing trouble. However, that behavior is not something one can condone.
Stopping that behavior is not a life lesson at that moment—that if you don’t step in, your child is going to go from toilet-papering a house to criminal activities in the next few years—but it is important to help him regulate those energies and understand that even though he feels like he is part of this fun peer group, he is affecting someone else in a not-so-fun way. That is important on a deeper level because while a child or teenager is separating from his family, he also still needs to be reminded of the values of the family and the community. That helps him keep a connection, so that when he finishes individuating, or finishes much of it, he can come back to that identity.
It is important to step in so he learns he can’t act immorally or without care or concern and then that's it, there are no consequences. Parents can do that in many different ways, depending on what the child is doing. A parent could reprimand him saying, “I’m sorry. That's it. The evening is over. Come home,” or it could be a consequence. If he has done something that is hurtful or upsetting to someone, he would need a consequence that is familiar to the family—meaning that if the family feels it’s appropriate, make the child pay for the damage, make the child paint over graffiti, make the child do community service, or something of that nature. It’s very important to provide a positive message as well. It’s not that you don’t love him anymore, not that you think he is going to become a criminal, but that he has hurt someone else’s feelings and that is really not okay.
Nicholas Strouse, LCSW, is founder and director of Westport Family Counseling in Westport, CT, where he specializes in the use of adaptive treatment strategies.