Halloween isn’t canceled; expert tips for celebrating during COVID-19

By Jillian Cohan Martin
October 12, 2020
Halloween pumpkin image

Main photo by Julia Raasch on Unsplash

Halloween is full of traditions — costume creation, pumpkin carving, spooky decorations, candy collecting, harvest festivals and more. But COVID-19 has made many of our favorite traditions unsafe this year.

In the Northwest, state health officials say not to trick-or-treat or gather for costume parties, haunted houses and other indoor celebrations. And that’s just the start of a holiday season that will look different from years past.

With fewer options, how can you still make Halloween enjoyable, especially for kids? We asked three experts to weigh in:

Left to right: Dr. James Polo, executive medical director at Regence. A practicing psychiatrist for more than 25 years, his expertise includes children’s and teens’ mental health. Asha Dornfest, author of the “Parent Hacks” blog, co-author of the book “Minimalist Parenting“ and co-host of the “Edit Your Life” podcast. Bonnie Harris, a parenting and child behavior specialist whose books include “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids.” She also hosts the podcast “Tell Me About Your Kids.”

All three say that clear communication, empathy and setting reasonable expectations will go far for families.

Discuss how this year is different

“Parents should never underestimate how meaningful events like Halloween actually are to kids,” Polo says. It’s important to talk about the changes this year in advance.

“The hard part comes when we try to pretend like everything’s normal,” Dornfest says. “We may want to do what we've always done, because we’re trying to make it easier for kids. But the fact is, kids know that this is not a time like other times.”

Give children time to express their feelings and let them know you understand. After that, you can invite them to problem solve, Harris says.

“Once your child feels completely understood, then you can say, ‘What are we going to do about this? How can we make lemonade out of lemons? What can we think of outside the box to make this Halloween really special?’ ”

Meet kids where they are

As parents, we may assume that we know how our kids will react to losing out on traditions. “But parents might be worried about one thing, and a child might actually be worried about something else,” Polo says.

For example, you may think your little kid is most excited about Halloween candy. So you give them a long explanation about why you’re not going trick-or-treating (and maybe buy a huge bag of fun-size Snickers to compensate). But your kid just shrugs.

Later on, you find them moping because they assume they won’t get to dress up for Halloween. For them, the costume is the best part.

On the other hand, if you have a teenager, they might be upset that they can’t go to parties or prank their friends.

If you know what your child is most worried about, or excited about, you can shape your celebration around it.

Maybe you don’t do an elaborate candy hunt, and instead have a costume contest. Or maybe your kids love Halloween decorations, so you take a socially distant walk around the neighborhood to see whose house looks the spookiest.

Be patient with yourself

Some adults may be crushed to lose out on the pageantry of Halloween. Others may feel stressed out over trying to create a Pinterest-worthy celebration during the pandemic.

“My advice to parents is to be genuine,” Harris says. “If you if you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like flopping down on the floor and putting your head in your hands and saying, ‘this is so hard,’ do it.”

When you express your feelings in a healthy way, she says, “your kids are likely to see that. They may come and put their arms around you and say, ‘It’s gonna be okay. We’ll get through it.’ ”

Get creative, and be flexible

Since COVID rates and restrictions vary by community, our Halloween celebrations will be intensely personal this year.

Staying in with members of your own household is safest, the CDC says. But outdoor, socially distant activities like pumpkin patches and corn mazes may be OK in areas where infection rates are low.

If you’re celebrating at home, a little imagination can go a long way. “It’s all about the novelty and the surprise,” Dornfest says. She recommends:

  • Using colored lightbulbs and bringing your outdoor decorations inside to amp up the fun
  • Setting the mood with a playlist of spooky songs
  • Having a family costume contest where the kids can raid the adults’ closets
  • Halloween-themed scavenger hunts with silly clues

If you’re leaving the house, include a protective face covering in your costume. You can get creative here, too. Disposable medical masks could become a simple craft project where kids draw skeleton jaws, Dracula fangs or jack-o-lantern grins.

Whatever you plan to do, minimize expectations for how it will turn out. “Try to just remember, it's all in service of the fun and the joy,” Dornfest says.

Carry it forward

All of these strategies — validating kids’ feelings, creating surprises out of everyday pleasures, and being patient with yourself — also apply as we help kids find safe and satisfying ways to celebrate the winter holidays.

“One of the key things that a child needs to understand is that the future will get better,” Polo says. “They don’t need to know that it's going to be exactly the same, because it won’t be. What they do need to know is that the things that they're missing are not gone forever. They will come back.”


Jillian Cohan Martin is a journalist and content strategist based in Portland, Oregon.