By Tracey Dowdy
Parenting our kids during Halloween is about riding that fine line of being just scary enough. And though you know your child better than they know themselves, sometimes it’s hard to predict what will frighten them. This is never more true than when watching Halloween-themed movies.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard “Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it off!” from my daughter when she was little. We tried to be mindful of what we let her watch but more than once the scene on TV or at the movies would be too intense for her. And because every child is different, what scares one child leaves another unfazed. My oldest watched Jumanji and has a fear of alligators to this day, while my youngest laughed all the way through it. Yet that same kid was too uncomfortable and anxious to watch Mr. Bean because she just knew he was going to be in so much trouble.
We tend to be careful about what we let our preschoolers watch and what they’re exposed to, but when kids reach school age, those restrictions sometimes relax. We often have less control as they may watch a movie at a friend’s birthday party or on a rainy day school with content they haven’t previously been exposed to. This is when some parents start to see increased fear and anxiety in their kids.
Whether you’re deciding what to let your kids watch or you’re dealing with the aftermath of a too scary movie, these tips can help you – and your kids – find the right balance.
- Do your homework. Take the time to look up the movie on sites like IMDB or Common Sense Media that break down the movie content. Common Sense Media even provides age-appropriate lists of movies, which can help you find a movie based on your child’s maturity level.
- Be mindful of age-appropriateness. Kids under seven have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality so when it comes to scary movies, it’s generally best to stick to animation to reinforce the fact that “it’s just make believe.” Keep in mind kids relate to characters their own age, so if the character in danger is a child like them, it may make them more insecure. It’s a simple matter of different things scare different people. “Fear isn’t just triggered by zombies and monsters. Shows that hinge on the death of a child, pet or parent can stir up fear and anxiety in some children,” says Jane Tallim, co-executive director of MediaSmarts, a media literacy organization in Ottawa.
- Remember, it’s not just the scary music or the monster popping out from under the bed but the language and adult content of the film that makes it inappropriate for kids. Don’t rely on G or PG ratings. The Little Mermaid is a kids movie but Ursula can be downright scary and Finding Nemo has plenty of laughs with a happy ending but don’t forget Nemo’s entire family – his mom and all the eggs – are killed by a very scary barracuda at the beginning of the film.
- Be prepared for the fall-out. If you push the envelope and let your kids watch something scarier than they’re accustomed to, realize that bedtime may take a little longer than usual and they may even have bad dreams. To help them relax, little ones often like magical cures like a spray bottle of “monster repellant” on their nightstand, while older kids may need you to leave a light on in the hall and play some music to distract them as they fall asleep.
- Keep your child’s life experience in mind. Kids who’ve recently experience the death of a family member or beloved pet or have been through a parental divorce are more likely to be sensitive and more prone to fear and anxiety. Real life situations impact kids deeply and when they see their experience reflected on the screen, it may bring hidden or previously nonexistent fears to the surface.
- Choose a happy ending. Try to find movies that mix humor into the story line to lighten the mood and look for movies with a happy ending. There’s a lot to be said for ending the movie watching experience on a high note.
- Talk about what you saw. If your child is afraid, talk about what elements of the story frightened them. Talk about what’s real and not real and, if necessary, talk about what you and your family would do in a similar situation. Sometimes simply talking through fears can quiet them and make your kids feel more secure.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.