On Halloween, Will Your Child Take The High Road or the Low Road?

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on October 29, 2006.


Did that scare you? Make your heart race a little faster? Cause you to startle? Probably not. Out of context, with no great lead up story or visual imagery, “boo!” is just a word on a page. But if that word was spoken by Vincent Price at the climax of a horror movie or written as the cliffhanger in a Stephen King novel, you might have already been sweating, eyes wide and shallow of breath.

Now imagine that you are in Paris in 1895, having wandered into an exhibition showing the first “moving picture” in history. You are sitting in a chair and on the wall in front of you appears a huge steam engine heading straight for you. What would you do? In the history books, the audience screamed in terror and dove under chairs. To this utterly novice audience, they could not help but to perceive the moving picture as real and feel the terror of a steam train speeding toward them.

Daniel Goleman describes this scene in his book, Social Intelligence. Like his bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, Goleman brings the science of human relationships within easy reach.

Goleman’s early chapters focus on the brain’s mechanisms for understanding emotional communication shared between or among people. Advances in research technology have allowed scientists to study social interchanges as precise as microseconds. One aspect of social communication is what Goleman calls emotional contagion. Here’s how we “catch” emotions. Part of our brain, called the amygdala, extracts nonverbal information at extremely subtle levels – so subtle that it detects something as small as a grimace or the flex of an eyebrow. Every moment of every interaction is being perceived by the amygdala, microseconds before we know what we are looking at. This unconscious signaling system primes us to catch the emotions of those around us – whether we want to or not. We literally experience a bit of the feelings of others.

Many holidays carry particular emotional memories and messages. Halloween specializes in fear. So does the amygdala. This emotion hotline is primed for danger or warning signals in order to keep us safe. Like many species in the animal world, we are designed to monitor our environment for survival.

Goleman describes the unconscious, rapid processing conducted by the amygdale “the low road”. In contrast, “the high road” refers to the cognitive reasoning and understanding we apply, or overlay, to our emotional experiences.

Young children face a particular challenge because even though the low road is functioning as a superhighway to the feelings they experience, the high road is under developmental construction.

Halloween puts a spotlight on the crossroads. Young children can struggle with the visual and verbal messages of Halloween. On the low road, they are surrounded by constant, detailed information that they not only perceive, but absorb as feelings. On the high road, they can rehearse that the witch “is just pretend” They can tell themselves and others that they can’t wait to go trick or treating to get buckets full of candy, yet find they break down in tears at the sight of the ghost walking down the street or the vampire who answers the door and reaches a bloody hand out to fill their candy bucket.

In essence, even though a young child can SAY what is real and what is pretend, the emotional messages can easily undermine their understanding. If it is just pretend, why does it feel so scary? The feelings are real, so maybe the monster is real, too.

As parents, you may wish to consider to what degree you expose your child to the various images and icons of Halloween. This might mean thinking about things like the costumes you choose (or older siblings choose) or whether you want your young child to help answer the door for trick-or-treaters. While children may be enthusiastic in the abstract (“I can’t WAIT to go trick-or-treating in the dark”) because collecting candy is such an enticing objective, the reality of the experience may be more than some children can handle.

Helpful things to consider might be your child’s temperament, their reaction to other scary or unexpected events, and whether or not they are currently in a developmental cycle of nightmares. Think especially about the things that your child relies on to know that they are safe: you and the place called home. If you have a child under age 6 or 7, you might not want to take out your favorite Frankenstein costume, King Kong ape suit or even cover your face in clown make-up. All of these can trigger the low road’s response faster than the high road can say “boo”.


Photo/image by: Antoine Butler – aebsr / Flickr