Ask the Experts: Kids and Scary Movies




We asked local experts to weigh in on their tips for navigating interest and fears in scary movies.

To find more answers to other common parenting questions, check out our collection of Ask the Experts.


Dr. Lisa L. Marotta: Who remembers the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz? That was the scariest movie I watched for a long time. Some kids enjoy being scared. I never did. I do remember being proud of myself, however, for watching the whole movie, and it was nice that the good guys won in the end. As Halloween approaches, even commercials can be potential triggers for kids who don’t like to be frightened. In October, I give anxious children some basic strategies: Change the channel, leave the room, and/or close your eyes.  You don’t have to watch scary stuff if you don’t want to!

However, some families like scary movies and enjoy watching them together. The benefit of co-watching is the opportunity to observe how everyone is handling the story. While family bonding is special, be sure that everyone who is watching is ready for the “fright factor” of the film. You can’t un-watch something.

If your child has been exposed to a movie that overwhelms them, they will need help feeling better. Sleep disturbances, obsessional thinking and avoidance of the dark are common side effects of watching something that is mismatched with your child’s age, developmental understanding or temperament. Assisting your child to manage their new fear of the dark or nightmares is a slow and steady process. It may be helpful to make bedtime a little earlier for a while so you have more time for soothing routines before bed. I do not advise letting your child sleep in your bed until he/she feels less afraid. You could have a secondary problem on your hands- returning him/her to independent sleep.

Overall, a wise parent makes sure they know their child and the movie well.  Many eight year olds can distinguish reality from television, but not all. If you are unsure, wait instead of introducing a movie too soon. Isn’t the world scary enough?

Dr. Lisa L. Marotta is celebrating 22 years of private practice. She is a clinical psychologist in Edmond with a special heart for women, children and families. Dr. Marotta enjoys writing, public speaking and blogging. She and her husband Sal have two young adult daughters.


Dr. Anne K. Jacobs: Fall is a beautiful time of year when children start picking out costumes and teenagers start crafting their alibis. Both groups may start pushing the limits on the types of movies they want watch. Resources such as commonsensemedia.org can help parents determine what is appropriate for their children.

Keep in mind, children are more likely to experience long-term fears after a scary movie if: 1) they are younger, 2) they see graphic depictions of blood and injury, and 3) they did not want to see the movie, but went along because someone else wanted to see it.

Here are some additional tips to help you make the best decisions for your youth by age group.

Preschoolers are easily frightened by scary images that do not have to be particularly realistic. At these ages, it is important to restrict the type of programs they watch and provide distraction and physical comfort when faced with a scary scene. At these ages, explaining that the show is "not real" does not help.

School-age children are typically scared by more realistic portrayals of scary events or when familiar and safe things turn bad in a movie. The school years are an appropriate age to help children begin to evaluate what they are seeing on the screen. Logic helps to reassure children that the content in movies is not real. Explain how unlikely it is that the scary event shown would actually happen to them

For teenagers, be mindful of the presence of sexual content in many horror movies. Gender stereotypes may also be present as females are more commonly displayed as victims. Watch these movies with your teens and encourage them to analyze and question the messages embedded in the movies. Address any sexual content in these movies and refute inaccurate information, after viewing to reduce an negative effect.

Anne K. Jacobs earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Kansas and enjoys serving children, adolescents and their families. In addition to her private practice in Edmond, she holds an adjunct faculty position at Southern Nazarene University. Her family includes: husband, Noel who is also a child psychologist; twin daughters, Keegan and Sarah; one dog, two cats, and five tarantulas. 


Trudy Ruminer: Not all children are the same so age appropriateness is an art, not a science. However, here are some guidelines to consider when deciding whether a scary movie is appropriate for your child.

  • Children under the age of 5 years often have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality so use caution for this age group. Movies at this age should be limited to very mild, if any, frightening aspects.
  • Many children between 5 and 7 years old will start to grasp the concept of real versus pretend but may still be disturbed by movies that contain overtly frightening themes.
  • Children who are in the 7-10 year range will commonly have fears associated with getting hurt by a “bad guy” or stranger therefore watching a movie wherein a child their own age or older is threatened or harmed may cause them distress. Even if your child appears fine or argues that it doesn’t impact them, watch for cues of distress as listed below.
  • 11-13 year olds may be better equipped to navigate the scary movie scene on some level but each child is different. If your child watches something that they say is not scary to them but then starts coming to you at night wanting to sleep closer to you or is having nightmares let their behavior speak for them.
  • 14-16 year old can vary greatly in ability to emotionally handle fears and this coupled with the peer pressure of wanting to fit in may end up being a mine-field to navigate for some. If your child appears to be negatively affected by movies with scary scenes, you may need to help them help themselves, by restricting what they can watch and/or only allowing movie nights at your home so that you can have more control.
  • 17 and beyond-At this point in the game most movie theaters will allow children to see movies rated for adults therefore arguing the merits of self-preservation with many teens may be difficult. Keeping an open dialog with your teen about how a movie’s content may impact them is more important than ever at this stage.

Note: If your child is sensitive and/or anxious, age and developmental stage are of little concern.  Follow your child’s cues. If your child appears fearful, is having nightmares, is afraid to sleep in their own bed, is talking about how scary a movie is (to them) whether the movie is recommended for their age group should not matter. Many well-meaning parents might try to restrict their child from talking about things that scare them in effort to decrease their fears but children need to talk about their fears to decrease them.           

For more great information on this topic there are several websites that give reviews and feedback for parents regarding movies, video games, websites listed below:

Trudy Ruminer is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director and owner of True North Therapeutic Solutions, an outpatient mental health agency in Oklahoma City. Trudy is mother to four adult children and the proud grandmother to one. She draws her knowledge not only from her own personal parenting experiences, but also from her years of experience working closely with families. 


Courtney Chandler: Choosing a movie for children can be tricky. One child may love and respond positively to a movie while another child may not.  It may help to talk with other parents and their children or check out online resources like www.comonsensemedia.com for reviews and recommendations.  When watching new movies with children, keep an eye on their body language to see how they react to different scenes in a movie. Are they tensing up, hiding their face or covering their ears? You might need to stop a movie to check in with your child to discuss their emotions and what they have heard or seen. After a movie is finished, follow up with your child to discuss what they thought of the movie and to identify if that genre is right for them.

Courtney Chandler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy and play therapist working for Sunbeam Family Services, a non-profit organization in Oklahoma City. Courtney is passionate about the power of play therapy and enjoys working with children, adolescents and their families


 

To find more answers to other common parenting questions, check out our collection of Ask the Experts.

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