Manage scary media to prevent long-lasting effects of serious fright.
It might seem like yesterday that your child begged to skip the pages in Snow White because pictures of the evil queen frightened her. Today, her eyes are glued to movies and books chock-full of witches and ghosts and things that go bump in the night. What’s with this newfound fascination for chills and thrills?
“Some kids get a charge out of being scared. They like the way it feels when their hearts race with fear and anticipation. It’s exhilarating!” explains Joanne Cantor, PhD, a psychologist and author of Teddy’s TV Troubles (Goblin Fern Press, $16.95), a picture book for children who have been frightened by media images.
Undoubtedly, some children enjoy this form of excitement a little more than others. Thrill-seekers are attracted to things that appear dangerous or scary, while highly empathetic youngsters get little pleasure from fear-filled moments regardless of whether they know the situation isn’t real, says Dr. Cantor. “To them, if the character in a book or movie is distressed, then they’re anxious too,” she says.
Still, your braveheart probably isn’t ready for the latest Stephen King blockbuster. It’s best to err on the side of caution and say no to a request if you think the experience is too much for your child. “Once a child’s exposed to and horrified by an encounter, you can’t undo that sick feeling of fear, and it can last a very long time,” warns Dr. Cantor. Her research shows that some adults suffer from residual anxieties and fears decades after watching terrifying shows as children.
Finding the perfect balance between pleasant thrills and creepy chills can be challenging. Here’s a look at what many kids find delightfully frightful and how you can help your child experience a healthy dose of the heebie-jeebies.
Like a contestant on Fear Factor, your child proved he wasn’t a yellow-belly by venturing into his first haunted house or riding his first big roller coaster. If he was with an older sibling or group of friends, pride — not a desire to be frightened — was probably his motivation, and that’s okay.
“Kids bond over these acts of bravery. Plus it shows your child that he has the skills and courage to cope with frightening events,” says Charles Flatter, PhD, director of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Child Study.
Talking to your child about what to expect can help him as he puts on a brave face. (“There will be grown-ups in masks who might jump out at you, but they’re not real monsters. It’s just pretend.”) If he’s still apprehensive about trying the activity, respect his feelings and don’t allow others to pressure him.
Books such as the Goosebumps series are often a child’s first introduction to fun frights. The great thing about books is that your child gets to decide what’s safe and what’s not: When he becomes too frightened, he can stop reading.
“Books are less likely to cause nightmares because the child can use his imagination to tame down the scary stuff,” Dr. Cantor says. If you’re unsure how your child will react to a certain book, read it together and discuss the scarier sections with her.
Some questions to ask: What is she afraid might happen next? What does she think the evil wizard looks like? “Talking through the plot helps your child grasp that the events and the characters aren’t real,” says Dr. Cantor.
Even if your child has memorized every Lemony Snicket book, think twice before heading to the theater for the latest release. Creepy visual images can have a lasting, chilling effect on children.
“They’re in a big, dark room, the images on the screen are enormous, the sound is intense and there’s no way for them to easily stop the experience,” says Dr. Flatter. For these reasons, watching the flick at home makes the most sense (pre-screen the show first).
Reading the book first is a good way to test your child’s readiness for scary stuff, but remember: The pictures your child creates in his head probably aren’t as menacing as those in a movie.
And never force a child to watch a show that’s upsetting her even if it ends happily. “Kids are just starting to connect the happy ending with earlier plots. That feeling of dread, not joy, is what she’ll remember when it’s time to call it a night,” Dr. Flatter says.
Too Much Terror?
If your child’s been frightened, don’t try to rationalize away his fear. (“That’s silly to be afraid of ghosts. You know they’re not real.”)
“When you belittle a child’s fear it takes away a source of trust and comfort,” Dr. Flatter says. Instead, go along with reasonable bedtime requests such as leaving a light on. You can ask him to draw a silly picture of what frightens him (a monster in his underwear drawer) to replace the frightful image in his mind with a funny one. Or show him how makeup, masks and special effects are used to create monstrous appearances.
By empathizing with his feelings, you’ll help him handle future scares.
Jeanette Moninger is a freelance writer.