Q: My kids (10 and 7) have been invited to a number of Halloween-themed parties this year that are being held at their schools and at the homes of a few of their friends. Several of these parties will have scary movies, scary music, and in one case (the school’s) a dramatic reading of a scary book. I’m concerned that while all of these media are “for kids”, my kids may be too scared by them. Neither of my children particularly love Halloween, and two years ago, my eldest saw a relatively tame scary movie that gave her nightmares for weeks! How can I tell what scary media will be okay for my kids and which media they should avoid?
~In Need of Halloween Help in Lincoln, NH
A: Dear Halloween,
Our culture embraces scary media as entertainment in part because it draws quick and reliable responses from the broadest audiences. Fear is a primary human response, and it crosses cultural and language barriers with ease. Common human responses to scary events are to avoid them or attempt to master them. Many parents want their children to master fear, often by engaging with the scary material, believing that it will strengthen and prepare them for the “real world.” However, avoidance may be the healthier response. Avoidance is not only a survival skill that helps your children recognize and avoid danger, but it is also an expression of their natural empathy for others. By avoiding scary movies where characters are in danger or distress, your children are showing a reluctance to seeing others threatened or hurt.
On the other hand, watching, reading, and listening to scary media in order to master them is a form of desensitizing oneself to violence. If we want our children to dislike and avoid violence while standing up for victims of violence, it is important we help maintain children’s dislike of things that hurt, scare, or coerce others. Thus, the concept of “toughening kids up” may work against what many parents want for their children in the context of horror films and scary shows. Research by Joanne Cantor has also shown that children can be traumatized after only a single exposure to scary media. Dr. Cantor found that some students who had seen Jaws as young children were still afraid to go in the water in college.
To make decisions about what media to share, remember that you know your children best. The entertainment industry’s ratings of movies, TV, and video games are based on what industry employees think parents will let children see, not what is best for your children’s stage of development. Age ratings, while a useful starting point for picking out media, don’t necessarily apply to your particular child. For specific media, I recommend that you actually screen the movies or TV shows, or read the books, get advice from other parents who have done so, or read parent-oriented reviews and then decide whether you think these media will work for your children. Of course, you can’t prescreen everything and children are bound to see media that scare them, so prepare your child to discuss what they see and help them make meaning of it, incorporating it into their view of the world in safe and healthy ways.
One option during a season where we anticipate spooky events, like Halloween, is to have your children throw their own party that includes less scary media or other activities that work for them (remember apple bobbing?). If your children are invited to a party and don’t want to be left out, inform the host that your children are easily frightened and ask them to help your kids leave the room when scary stories or media are about to happen, without calling attention to it. This may clue the parents in so they change the program to be more inclusive. But even if the program is not changed, it can empower your children to remove themselves from scary media moments that you didn’t anticipate.
media and use them wisely,