Talking to Kids About Scary Movies

By Tracey Dowdy

When my daughter Ceilidh was eleven, we went to see Bridge to Terebithia. After we watched the scene where one of the main characters dies, she turned to me and asked, “This is a kid’s movie?” We had read the book but somehow seeing the storyline played out on-screen made Leslie’s death that much more tangible.

Few children’s movies are as heart-wrenching as Bridge to Terebithia but death is not an uncommon theme, especially the death of a parent – Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Cinderella – the list goes on and on. And don’t even get me started on Up.

A 2014 study by The British Medical Journal found that main characters are 2.5 times more likely to die in a children’s animated movie than in a movie made for adults. They’re also three times more likely to be murdered. It’s not just themes of death that are frightening to children. Think of Ursula transforming into a Sea Witch, the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, or the what-the-heck-was-that-all-about boat ride in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

If your child is upset by onscreen violence or intense movie scenes, here are some tips for getting things back on an even keel:

  • Stay calm. I realize you’re not likely to be scared of Ursula’s transformation but by remaining calm and engaging with your child one on one, you can use the technique recommended by counselor Danielle Maxon, that of “mirroring your child.” Your child will feel validated and learn healthy responses to stressful situations.
  • Validate. This plays off the concept of mirroring but be sure to respond to their emotions with statements like, “I can understand why that was really scary for you.”
  • Observe their actions and body language during intense or emotional parts of the movie. If you sense things are getting to be overwhelming, reach for their hand, ask if they’re okay, r leave the room or theater if necessary.
  • Ask if they have any questions about what they just saw. Don’t say, “Were you scared of the flying monkeys?” or “Are you sad because Elsa’s mom and dad died?” Well, now they are. Let them tell you what upset them by asking open ended questions like, “Tell me how you’re feeling” or, “What made you sad?”
  •  Be honest, but give age-appropriate information or detail. Your four-year old who is sad because Simba’s parents died doesn’t need to know that parents die in the real world too. Instead, offer simple explanations that will be meaningful to your child.
  •  Redirect. Turn it off, leave the theater and go read a book, draw or play a game. Often something as simple as a change of scenery is enough to remind your little one what they watched wasn’t real and helps calm them down.
  •  Spoiler alert: Most kids don’t care about spoilers. Do your homework before you sit down to watch and if you know something is going to pop up and startle your child, give them a heads up. Think about how many times you’ve watched Frozen. Kids aren’t watching movies for the plot twist at the end. One of the easiest ways is to take advantage of sites like Common Sense Media. They have a library of more than 25,000 reviews you can sort by age, entertainment type, learning rating, and genre.
  •  Don’t beat yourself up. I felt terrible for how Bridge to Terebithia upset my daughter. But it gave us the opportunity for some really good conversation over lunch. Make it a teachable moment for both of you and maybe go get ice cream. Scratch that. Definitely go get ice cream!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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