Mighty Life List
Sep 2 2014

Too Scary? Tips for Calming Kids Who Are Afraid of Movies or TV

Before you have kids, you know one day you’ll have to force them to do things they don’t want to do — homework, bedtime, using soap. But I never thought that dynamic would apply to age-appropriate cartoons.

Last year around Halloween, Hank declared that he wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle “from the store.” As you may recall, I’m emotionally over-invested in Halloween, and we’d been discussing elaborate, homemade C3PO costume for months. So after rending my garments, I made a Target run.

This is Hank in his Donatello costume. He’s six here, and I’d never seen him play fight before, you can hear me coaching him to twirl his staff in the video. At the time, he was afraid of lots of age-appropriate movies and TV, so I was a little relieved by his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles obsession.

But a few weeks before, we’d been watching the show together when I heard a familiar refrain. “Let’s turn it off,” he said. The scene wasn’t violent, or even high-conflict, so I asked why. “It’s too scary,” he said. Beh?

IT’S TOO SCARY

In the episode, one of the characters loses her top-secret “shell phone” (see what they did there?), and it puts her turtle friends in danger. The idea of accidentally doing something that has unpredictable consequences scared the crap out of Hank. I was sympathetic, but my patience was also worn.

After months of requests to leave theaters, turn off Disney movies, switch to another cartoon every time suspense was introduced, my impulse was to say, “This is not a thing. You can’t be afraid of everything that might accidentally happen at all times.”

And while being dismissive of a kid’s feelings is undoubtedly top-notch parenting, at what point do you ask a kid to face fears? For the time being I bit my tongue, switched to a more familiar TMNT cartoon, and did a little research.

WHAT DOES AGE-APPROPRIATE MEAN?

It turns out most TV shows aren’t designed with age guidelines in mind. But here’s some good age info that can help guide media choices:

• Kids age 3-6 are just becoming aware that they can be hurt, that parents can’t protect them from everything, and that parents don’t know everything. Like whether monsters exist and whether a cherry tree is growing in their stomach because they swallowed that seed.

• Not until age 7-8 can kids reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy.

• New fears developing suddenly are often a sign of intellectual growth. So if your kid is worried that the bathtub drain will swallow them, that means they’re smart.

• Conflict and suspense are tough for kids to intellectualize, it feels primal to them. And to be fair, in most entertainment media, that’s the intended effect.

Here’s how I changed my responses to Hank’s media fears after I did a little reading.

HOW TO DEAL WHEN A KID FEELS AFRAID

Be Calm
I stopped worrying about whether Hank “should” be afraid, and now I don’t dismiss feelings by saying things like, “This isn’t scary, honey.” Apparently, that teaches kids to hide fear or mask it, which is cruddy on many levels, but mostly because I need him to tell me if something scary happens when I’m not around.

Listen
I feel a little dumb admitting this, but I used to inadvertantly add to Hank’s fears by trying to guess what was wrong. “Are you afraid ligtening will strike our house?” Well, now he is. So now I ask, “Why are you afraid?” And then, “Why is that scary?” until I understand.

Mitigate
This rarely worked with Hank, but it made me feel better. I asked what I could do besides turning the show off. Hold him? Get a stuffed animal? Fast forward through suspense? If it worked one time in ten, it was worth it.

Research
Now I know more about what I’m getting into before I pay to see a movie in the theater or turn on a show for more than one kid to enjoy. If I don’t know the plot in advance, I know I’m of asking for it.

Forget Spoilers
Kids don’t care about being surprised. I explain what’s going to happen and what happens afterward, to help give him a sense of control. “It’s about to look like she died, but her sister will kiss her and she’ll wake up.”

Redirect
If Hank is still afraid and I’m able to turn a show off, I just do. And if I can’t because other children are enjoying it, we leave to draw, or play, or read.

GIVE IT TIME

With a little time and the right entertainment choices, Hank has mostly outgrown his “too scary” phase. It wasn’t a dramatic shift, just part of growing up — for both of us, my friends.

His newfound bravery has calmed the visions I had of him panicking at high school sleepovers when someone suggested watching Star Wars. We’re gonna hold off on that trash compactor scene though.

Do you know a kid who seems stressed out by TV or movies? Let us know if you have any tips for calming them, or whether they just eventually grew out of it, in comments.

This post is sponsored by Target. More Turtles, More Bold and Daring Fun: Blur the lines of fantasy and reality with your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at Target.

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13 Responses to “Too Scary? Tips for Calming Kids Who Are Afraid of Movies or TV”

  • Stephanie Says:

    This couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Sometimes I feel like I have “the weird kid” because while all the other 3 year olds we know are watching every age appropriate or not Disney and Pixar movie ever, my kid will only watch one Studio Ghibli movie. That’s it only one. Why? Because NOTHING happens in it.

    I vacillate between being totally fine with that – seriously, why does every movie have to have the parents die? that is legitimately terrifying – to omg, my kid is going to be “that” kid, the one with know cultural knowledge to bond with friends over.

    I think spoilers will go a long way in helping us at least get one more movie in our repertoire.

  • sarah Says:

    My kid falls somewhere in between. Not scared of everything, but also not necessarily fearless. He watches mostly benign cartoons with very little to the actual plot, so when we watch something like a movie–no matter how age-appropriate–there’s usually something that makes him nervous. Example: the shark scene or the deep water toothy fish scene in Finding Nemo (to be fair, that deep water fish thing is pretty terrifying).

    We usually just turn it off when requested or fast forward through the scary stuff for him. We REALLY need to work on our unintentional/off-handed dismissal of his feelings, though. The well-meaning ‘oh, buddy. There’s nothing to be scared about here!’ slips off the tongue way too easily. Even when combined with a hug and the obliging fast-forward button I’m afraid of causing the fear-hiding response.

  • Courtney Says:

    My 5-year-old son is like this, especially with anything new (hence watching the same 2-3 movies over and over). The first time we watched Toy Story 2, he whimpered and sat practically in my lap the whole time; he just could not handle the suspense. And I reacted mostly the way you did initially (“it’s not that scary”/”it will be fine, you’ll see”) which didn’t help much. Other scary movies: Frozen (almost had to leave the theater), Lego Movie (ditto), Wall-E (turned it off).

    I’ll have to keep these tips in mind for next time. We bought Toy Story 3, which I’ve heard is tough even for parents :)

  • Jennifer Says:

    I’m 43 years old and I still cannot handle even the lowest-stakes suspense. Movies I’ve seen countless times will have a mildly suspensful scene and I’ll just change the channel and see what else is on for a few minutes, no big deal, I’m not scared.

  • Lauren Says:

    Not exactly what you were looking for, but as a preschool teacher, can I just say how much I appreciate the fact that you are talking about age-appropriate material? I, despite my cheerful, calm exterior, want to PUNCH A WALL when 4 and 5-year-olds start to tell me about the tv shows or movies they have watched. Seriously? There is a reason movies have ratings. PG-13 and – no kidding – R movies are not for children!!

    Sorry. I need to go get some mental drywall putty for the mental wall I just smashed.

    Again, thank you for being age-appropriate.

  • Cindy Says:

    Great suggestions here. I especially love the idea about not asking leading question and instead just letting your kiddo speak. Our standard question when our kids even hint about something that scares them is, “Can you say more?” It’s super open-ended, very gentle and respectful, and almost always reveals something I could not have anticipated.

  • Sally Says:

    I teach kindergarten, and had a kid last year like this.
    One day we were watching the film “The Secret Garden”, and this kid freaked out at the section when there’s an earthquake. He ended up going off to “help” my TA with jobs the rest of the afternoon.
    A few months later, a theatre company came in to perform an entirely-appropriate kids play. Before they’d even started, he’s saying “I want to go, I’m scared.” And I was heartless and told him he had to stay, but if he wanted to, he could sit on my lap.
    He sat on me for about 20 minutes, then asked to get down, and sat with the other kids for the rest, and said at the end that he’d enjoyed it.

  • Alli Says:

    Thank you for all of this advice. For us it’s books. Dinosaur movies do not scare my 5-year-old much, but he wanted to throw the Fantastic Mr. Fox book in the garbage half-way through.I’m saving it for another couple of years. Hopefully, by then, he’ll be ready for it.

  • Amelia Says:

    YES! I never imagined that part of my parenting quest would be bargaining with my 4yo to stick out an episode of Curious George because actually it’s going to be completely fine in the end. My (precious and apparently intellectually developing) scardy-cat was desperate to see How to Train Your Dragon II in the theater but given that he almost had an aneurism when we saw Frozen (THE MOST SCARY MOVIE EVER MADE EVER said only my child) I was hesitant to say the least. Your point about spoilers is such a good one, and once we agreed to go to the movie, I looked up the plot on Wikipedia (thanks Interwebs!) and we read it every night leading up to the movie. We also looked up the characters so that he would know what the bad guys would look like and in doing all of this, the only thing that I would add is that I worked hard to keep it super positive. We weren’t looking it up “so that he wouldn’t feel scared”, we were looking it up so that “he would know the story!!”. It kind of worked–but he didn’t demand to leave the theater in the middle and the entire audience was not subjected to his play-by-play stage whispers of WHAT’S HAPPENING TO HER NOW, MAMA? so that was a plus. This was very helpful to read, he’s about to be five, so there’s hope for him yet. ;)

  • Torrie Says:

    Great post Maggie!
    My daughter is this way. Tried to show her Cinderella- the cat scared her. Mary Poppins- the bank scene scared her. For her first movie in a theater, we waited until she was about 5 1/2, and we tried to pick the most innocent thing we could- Winnie The Pooh. The Heffalump scene scared her. When she was about 6 1/2 (she’s 7+ now) I took her to see Frozen- when the snow monster part came, she (as suspected) started crying and freaking out and wanted to leave. I forced her to stay. I held her hand, and had her close her eyes. I needed her to see that sometimes things got tough or scary, but that if she stuck it out, there would be a “reward” (in this case, the happy ending).

  • Mary Says:

    Im 34 and I can’t deal with scary/suspenseful movies unless I know what’s going to happen in advance. Spoil me!

    My partner recommends http://canwewatchitagain.com/ as a great Podcast that reviews classic and contemporary movies and television for children.

  • Karen Says:

    I am also that person who can’t/won’t watch scary movies. I was forever scarred when at a sleepover in 5th or 6th grade someone’s parent thought it was ok for us to see The Howling. The pressure of pre-teen girls is tremendous, so I watched it & had nightmares for weeks. I can still vividly remember how frightened I was & I’m nearly 40!!

    Needless to say, my 5 year old daughter gets lots of leeway from me on this. She’s actually pretty confident in the face of things like the sharks in Nemo or dragons, but struggles with emotions – like jealousy or “mean girl” type stuff. Like the nasty stepmother in Cinderella is upsetting to her, because she knows something is wrong there, but not quite how to handle it.

    Anyhow, I guess my personal experience colors this heavily, so I am perfectly happy to shelter her in this area!

  • Mally Says:

    I love these tips, thank you! My four year old regular confounds me with what scares him. Star Wars? No problem. Peter Rabbit cartoons or Topsy & Tim? Terrifying!

    It took us a while to work out that the things he can most easily relate too – kids getting in to trouble or danger – are much much scarier to him than the over the top horrors of apparently far more frightening shows. We finally got to watch Frozen at the weekend, after numerous false starts, when we (and several of his plot-spoiling friends) reassured him that it all turns out OK in the end (and his obsession with the songs became overwhelming).
    Scooby Doo is still a no no though…