Trick or Treat!

We want our kids to manage sugar in a healthy way, yes on Halloween night, but all the other nights for the rest of their lives as well.
— Natalie Christensen

TRICK OR TREAT!

Does that phrase fill you with dread? Not because you fear a little goblin may scare the dickens out of you, but because you can already imagine the bulging sack of candy about to become the source of never-ending family arguments that send everyone into crying fits of sugar and panic?

Happy Halloween!

Sugar is not our friend. We know this already, we’ve been shamed by dentists, scared by news reports, slammed by our own candy crashes, and convinced by on-the-ground experience as we watch our kids, in the time it takes to finish a snack-sized treat, go from regular little beauties to raging crazed beasts. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that the stuff is serious.

But let’s just remind ourselves of the basic lowdown:

  • Sugar overstimulates our natural reward system, creating a loss of control, intense cravings and a high tolerance for the sweet stuff. Duh.

  • Excess sugar hinders both learning and the ability to remember. Darn.

  • High amounts of sugar increase depression, anxiety, fatigue, and irritability. Crap.

  • Sugar depresses our immune system, making us susceptible to every germ in town. Oof.

  • Sugar leads to painful and expensive tooth decay. Yep.

  • Too much sugar over time increases odds of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Cripes.

So it’s quite obvious isn’t it? When our darlings trudge back into the house, beaming with pride at the loot they’ve just gathered from the lovely neighbors, we tackle them to the ground, rip that criminal candy out of their hands, and make a mad-dash for the nearest landfill! Right? We want to keep them safe, sane, and cognitively intact, so there’s nothing for it.

Full-on confiscation required!

But maybe not…

You could, in the very short-term stop your child from eating candy. You could use your body mass as a blockade, or your arms as handcuffs and prevent them from gorging on corn syrup. You could do that. But the problem with this parenting strategy is that it only works for a bit, and it only works if you are big enough, or scary enough to maintain the physical and/or psychological obstruction.

And that’s not what we want, is it?

Not only do we not want to spend our time this way, we also don’t want our children to only behave appropriately when we’ve got our stern eye on them. We want them to be responsible and self-aware no matter who is looking (or holding the bag)!

If you’re having a hard time applying this concept to Halloween candy, substitute whatever illicit element really gets you triggered. For instance, if I am concerned with how my teenage daughter might interact with boys, I could punish her for texting them, I could keep her under lock and key every weekend night, and I could decide which boys she could talk to and dole out the prescribed encounters little by little over months. But what about when I’m not on duty? What about when she goes away to college? What happens to her “boy skills” when I’m not there to monitor?

I want her to manage love relationships well because she has a strong sense of what she wants (and doesn’t want), who she is, and what she values, not because she’ll get in trouble if she doesn’t do it my way. And I can’t help her learn these things if I am busy being the sheriff. And she is not empowered to get these qualities solidified because she’s too busy pushing back and sneaking around to even wonder about it.

We want our kids to manage sugar in a healthy way, yes on Halloween night, but all the other nights for the rest of their lives as well. Maintaining an iron grip on the candy bag temporarily soothes our concerns, but it sabotages our long-term parenting hopes and dreams.

So do we just let them go hog wild?

Probably not.  

Again, we want to keep our eyes on the prize: self-awareness and self-regulation. The parent who looks the other way on sugar isn’t doing anyone any favors either, because the wild free-for-all is missing that key ingredient, YOU! - your care, your experience, your information, and your support.

Instead:

Go ahead and prep for all hallows eve.

  • ACCEPT the fact that trucking massive amounts of sugary treats into your home is scary, or whatever the emotion is for you. Acknowledge if you feel stress around it, or are likely to be triggered.

  • SHARE the information you have about sugar and how it works in the body. Try really hard not to be frightening and threatening here, scare tactics backfire! Rather, stay neutral. Discus food dyes and how they go straight into the blood stream. Talk about the different types of candy and which are hardest for your teeth to weather. Tell them about the brain and what it needs to avoid in order to stay healthy.

  • ASK curiosity questions that have no right or wrong answers.

              How do you imagine handling the candy stash?

              - What’s it like for you when I’ve taken it away in the past?

              - Does your body feel different when you’ve eaten a lot at once?

              - Do you have any ideas about how to enjoy the holiday and still take good care of your body?

  • OFFER options. Many kids happily trade their candy for a toy, others love turning it in at the dentist’s for money. There are almost as many possibilities as there are kids on the planet. My kids like to save the particularly trashy treats to decorate our holiday gingerbread house (which goes stale and no one really eats). I’ve heard of another family that uses their candy for science, creating experiments, like soaking candy in vinegar and recording the results. The goal is to see your children as capable and responsible, to allow them to make a plan that works, and trust them to follow through. They might stumble, but, if you can remain on their team and not resort to police tactics, they will learn something about themselves and their bodies.

  • MEET their needs. A common suggestion is to feed children before they trick-or-treat. My childhood tradition is a big pot of clam chowder simmering on the stove and I enjoy carrying that on, but what I love about this suggestion is that it can be applied to the bigger picture. If kids become susceptible to sugar when a basic need is going unmet, we have another angle to work in ensuring their physical and emotional health.

Sugar is probably the shortest route to our brain’s pleasure center, but it’s not the only one. Authentic connection with a loved one gives candy a run for its money. By meeting kids’ needs - like connection, a sense of belonging, a feeling of significance - on a regular basis, and turning up our attention to these needs when they crave sweets, we can stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains along healthy pathways, routes we’d like to encourage because they are directly associated with successful and meaningful lives, rather than addiction and disease.

  • DISEMPOWER the delicacies. In our culture we regularly associate sugar with rewards. We use it to soothe ourselves after a tough day, congratulate ourselves for a milestone and every other special event in between. We set this up for our children as well. We offer treats as a reward for a huge variety of things - ingested vegetables, good grades, a championship baseball game, or a clean room. We use goodies to soothe upsets from vaccination shots to breakups.

    Unconsciously we invest sugar with an incredible amount of power and then despair at the magnetic pull it has on our children. If we want to divest it of its influence we’ve got to downgrade it. Canceling the birthday cake is going overboard, but we can certainly stop using candy to lure our children into or away from things. We can stop treating treats as just rewards for regular ups and downs, and instead celebrate and comfort our little ones with our presence, enthusiasm, interest, and empathy.  

  • SAY NO. After all of this discussion there are still times when the answer to “Can I have some candy??” will be NO. That’s just the way it goes sometimes and it’s your job to break the news. Whenever possible, try letting them know when they can expect to enjoy it in the future.

    Not right now, because we’re getting ready for bed, but YES you can have it tomorrow afternoon.”

    It’s quite likely that your children will have feelings about your response. Hearing NO, when you really want to hear YES!, is tough. It’s okay for them to experience emotions like disappointment, sadness, frustration, and anger. Your job is not to fix the situation and run for the candy supply, but to sit with them through their upset, offering big doses of empathy until it shifts.

    “What a bummer, huh? You were really hoping for some candy right now. It is so delicious. You really like it.” 

    They aren’t bad kids for wanting sweets, they aren’t delinquents for having feelings about your answer, they are just humans struggling, smallish people that need some support.

Our candy bag sits on top of the fridge and still contains pieces from last year. Our girls ask for a piece randomly and we try to say yes as much as possible, often asking them to check in with their bodies to be sure a dose of sugar is truly what they need. But while writing this article I felt inspired to check in with them, to see if our Halloween system is still working. The thirteen year old gave a listless shrug and a barely perceptible nod.

Uh oh.

Looks like we’ll be back at the drawing board too, redesigning our relationship with both our girls and sugar.


natalie-christensen.jpeg

Natalie Christensen

WRITER & PARENTING MENTOR

Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.

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