Like us, you've probably got at least one kiddo that's scared this Halloween. Our daughter, Juliana, was horrified when Andrew put on his gorilla costume at Target this year. Despite her reaction, we decided to get it and take our chances. We brought it home, and sure enough, she continued to cry and shake with horror every time he put that wretched costume on. Even having it in the same room as her was scary enough for her to cry. Because Halloween was just a couple days out, we had to do what we could to help her get desensitized to the costume. 

There's a process in behavior analysis called systematic desensitization that I'll explain. In Juliana's case, we had to systematically introduce the "stressor" (the costume) while reinforcing her for staying calm and tolerating its presence. This was the ONLY way that we'd be able to survive this Halloween without a scared and crying toddler that could not even look at certain costumes. This is what we did: 

  • We reinforced her with hugs, tickles, and verbal praise when she was calm while looking at the costume on the floor (at first, even just being in the room with the costume evoked crying behavior)
  • We then reinforced her for looking at Andrew wearing the costume without the mask (the mask seemed to be the most scary part) 
  • We then had Andrew put the mask on (again, reinforcing her at every step)
  • We then had Andrew get closer (within touching distance)
  • Next, we asked her to extend her hand and touch the costume
  • Finally, we had her touch the gorilla mask while he was wearing it

As I said above, at every step, we were reinforcing her. We utilized hugs, tickles, social praise, etc. We also had Andrew telling her throughout the time that it was just him under the costume. He did great. We were really proud that Andrew helped so much to get his sister systematically desensitized to a costume that initially evoked crying and shaking (she was genuinely scared). Rather than giving up, which I was tempted to do, I tried desensitization and it worked. After all, if it were not Andrew, another costume would have scared her for sure, so I'm glad that we worked on it. There's a million applications with systematic desensitization. Please let us know if you have questions!

Rob @ Cultivate Behavior Health & Education

Below is the interview that we did with Andrew as he explains what we explained above!