Q: Our 8-year-old daughter was invited to see a PG movie with a friend. We typically do not let her see movies on her own, especially films that her father and I haven’t watched. We made an exception this time and allowed her to see the movie as a treat. Unfortunately, the movie has a scene where a dead body falls out of a closet (even though the movie is billed as a PG comedy). My daughter was clearly scared by this scene and came home upset and worried. Since then she has been asking us about why people kill people and is having a hard time sleeping. I know this is primarily due to our lapse in parental judgment, but I’m at a loss and don’t know how to calm her fears or if I can ever let her see another movie again! Any advice?
– Feeling guilty, NH
A: Dear Feeling,
Parenting is an imperfect art. No matter how much we read, listen and learn from experts, we often figure out what’s best by making mistakes. There are no right answers, just better strategies for an individual child at a specific developmental stage. The secret is to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and learn from them. Sure, the research would indicate that best practice would be to prescreen the movie before sharing it with your daughter, but let’s be realistic. It is impossible for parents to preview every TV show, movie, song, book, video game, and website that their children will encounter at home, let alone the media they’ll see in school, at friends’ houses, etc.
I have to confess that I have stumbled on this issue myself. My sons, who are 6 and 8, LOVE old black-and-white silent movies by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They are engaged by the perilous situations and howl in laughter at the physical comedy. So when The Artist came out on DVD, I shared it with my family without previewing it. Skeptical of the MPAA’s rating system, I assumed the PG-13 was assigned because the film demanded a level of attention that younger kids couldn’t manage. I relied on reviews that gushed about the innocence and fun of the film and on its trailers which showed happy people laughing and dancing. And The Artist was fun for us all–until the lead actor placed a pistol in his mouth to kill himself. Like your daughter, my boys were both disturbed by what they saw and tried to manage their anxiety by asking powerful questions about suicide.
So what do you do next? Help your daughter process what she saw and how she feels about it. Most concerning content can be managed well by talking to your child about it and helping her process it:
- Listen to your child. Have her tell you the scene as she saw it. Even if you are sure you know, ask her what scared her–it may not be exactly what you think. Affirm her feelings: “It sounds really frightening. I can understand why it would be hard to fall asleep.”
- Answer your child’s questions. Topics like death—and particularly murder and suicide—can be very difficult for young children to understand. Offer simple explanations that will be meaningful to her, and stop when she indicates she has had enough to process.
- Comfort your child. Reassure her that she’s safe, and that the people she loves are safe. Offer hugs and stuffed animals to hold, especially at bedtime.
- Let her set the pace. It may take her some time to process, but she’ll ask questions when she’s ready to. For weeks after seeing The Artist, my boys would sometimes questions like, “Why did he want to kill himself? What was so bad about life?” Answer your child’s questions when she has them, waiting for her guidance as to what she needs reassurance about.
- Above all, stop feeling guilty. Forgive yourself, and focus on doing better next time. We will never be perfect parents, but we should never stop perfecting our parenting. If your daughter is invited to another movie that you won’t be able to screen first, do some research online, or ask a family friend who saw the film and knows your daughter whether it would be a good experience for her. There will always be situations outside of your control that may upset her. The best strategy is not to avoid them but to teach your daughter to handle them. Use this as a learning experience for both of you, and an opportunity to model for her your resilience and determination to do the best you can.