Posted on 20 October 2017 by Lily
For me, the film was the original version of Stephen King’s It.
Topical, I know. I was eleven years old and I saw it while sleeping over at a friend’s place. It was the first horror movie I’d ever seen, and to be honest, I didn’t really feel safe in the shower for about a decade. Maybe for you it was Daleks. Or Jaws. Whatever it was, chances are at some point in your youth you saw a movie that completely freaked you out.
90% of adults report being traumatised as a child by something they saw on television or in a movie. But remembering fear is a little like remembering pain – you remember that it hurt, but you can’t recall the exact sensation.
With Hallowe’en coming up, horror movies will be creepy-crawling onto screens everywhere. As parents trying to guide our children through their media experiences with as little emotional fallout as possible, we need to remember the effect that horror movies can have on kids. They can cause vivid nightmares, a fear of the dark, trouble sleeping, refusing to sleep alone…
Or in the case of eleven year old me, a bladder infection because I didn’t want to pee in case there was a clown in the toilet.
Children consistently report being frightened by the media more frequently than parents report their kids being scared. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Children often hide their fear because they want to appear mature, especially if they’re watching something with older siblings or friends. Children also hide their fear because they don’t want to miss out or be excluded (or even worse, have their parents restrict what they can watch. Now there’s some real horror!). This is especially true of boys, who are often taught to be less emotionally expressive than girls.
But don’t worry, parents and other valued caregivers. Like a bridge over troubled water, the Office of Film and Literature Classification is on your side. Knowing how to help a frightened child starts with knowing how different age groups respond to different media content, and having strategies in place to support them if things go a bit pear-shaped.
What scares kids in the media often depends on their age, and they may move through several different stages in terms of what they find frightening to view as they get older. This is part of the normal developmental process most kids go through. Here are some quick guidelines about the type of media that tends to effect different age groups:
Under-fives are most frightened by things that look scary. Whether that thing is actually dangerous or even real is much less important than the way it looks. This is because kids in this age group can’t always distinguish between what is real and what isn’t. Witches, monsters, ghosts – even cartoon ones that would be funny for older kids – can be really scary for the littlies. Case in point? My mother says when I was three I went through a phase of getting her up in the middle of the night to check the kitchen for tigers shortly after she read me The Tiger That Came To Tea. Sudden movements and strange transformations can also really freak kids in this age group out. Think of Angelica Houston peeling off her face in The Witches, or even Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk.
Slightly older primary school children are still predominantly scared by frightening images, but are more conscious of the difference between real and make believe. However, they’re also at an age where they’re becoming more interested in action-based media like superhero movies and cartoons, which might contain frightening or disturbing images. My dad took me to see Jurassic Park in the cinema when it came out and I loved it, but my 6 year old little sister hid under her seat and begged my father to take her out (he did). Which points to another issue with this age group – they are more likely than younger children to watch media aimed at older kids, which they might not be ready for yet. Proceed with caution.
Pre-teens or ‘tweens’ are normally at a stage where they are less likely to get freaked out by scary images or imaginary creatures. Instead, they tend to fear more concrete dangers like injury or death. At this age, kids can get quite hung up on their personal safety and for the well-being of the people that they love, so stories involving children or parents in danger can be really upsetting for them. They’re starting to consume more media aimed at adults, so TV dramas or even the evening news can fuel their fears. I’m going to drop my little sister in it again and say that at this age, she saw the disaster movie Daylight at our neighbour’s house. She is still afraid of tunnels.
Luckily, there are heaps of strategies to help kids develop resilience to media-related fears. Some of these are effective regardless of your child’s age, others depend on their age and maturity:
Making your kids watch something they find scary or telling them they’re being ‘silly’ or a ‘baby’ if they’re frightened is counterproductive. Responses like these make kids feel like they’re better off hiding their fear from you. If you’re watching something with your kids that you think might frighten them, reassure them you will turn it off if they find it too scary.
Help your children find media that is age-appropriate and tells stories about protagonists who are confident and can manage their own fear. Research has found that confident heroes and heroines allow children to feel thrilled, rather than frightened, by depictions of danger. Scooby Doo has been cited as a good example because even if some of the characters express fear, other main characters do not. After viewing a few episodes, kids will cotton on that any monsters will be unmasked at the end.
Young kids have to learn how to manage all of their emotions. This includes fear. If you’re watching a television show or movie where a character is in danger, don’t worry about ~*spoilers*~ or ruining the suspense if your child asks if the character will be ok. Helping your children manage their fear by reassuring them is way more important than any twists in the plot.
Physical coping mechanisms, such as holding hands, can really reassure a young child and help them get through a scary scene. Having them cover their ears to block scary music or sudden sounds can also help reduce the sensory overload that contributes to their anxiety. However, having them close their eyes has been shown to be ineffective. If your kid is really that frightened by something though, it’s probably best to turn it off.
Parental ratings exist for you and your children’s benefit. Avoid exposing your children to television shows, movies, or video games that are restricted to older kids (or restricted to adults). You can also ask other parents for advice about a particular movie, show or game, or look potential viewing material up on any one of the various online review sites for parents. A good example of this is Common Sense Media.
If your kid develops a specific fear, such as a fear of drowning, give them safety rules or enrol them in swimming lessons to help them take back some control. Not only does this help build your child’s confidence so they can go about their daily lives without missing out on opportunities, it also promotes a more rational risk-awareness.
Explaining why your child doesn’t need to fear something is generally a strategy that works best with older kids. Simple explanations are often all that are required. For example, “There are no snakes in New Zealand” might be a good follow up to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Younger kids are more likely to just hone in the words ‘snakes’ and ‘New Zealand’.
Hallowe’en is a great time to explore the fun or thrilling elements of horror culture, and it’s an excellent opportunity for kids to experience a manageable amount of fear or fright. Although they feel super real to your kids, most children’s fears are unrealistic. There is no clown in the bathroom, or tiger in the kitchen. As parents, we need to help our children manage their fears and focus on the things they can control.
Being just a little bit scared can be exciting and help kids confront the things that freak them out. Dressing up as monsters, concocting supernatural snacks (peeled grapes make great eyeballs, am I right?), and going trick-or-treating are all ways to get involved in the spooky season without getting scared to the point of a bladder infection.
There are also a number of great Hallowe’en movies for kids of all ages. Doing some research and finding something fun for the whole family to watch is a great way for our kids to experience the thrill of media within the comfort of a safe, supportive environment. Just please, please don’t let your eleven year old (or anybody else’s) watch It.
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