Scary movies

Kids vary in their ability to handle frightening content

Chloe was in grade five when it happened. She went to a friend’s house where they watched The Mummy. Big mistake. “I had nightmares for, like, six months afterwards. It was ridiculous how long they lasted,” she says.

Needless to say, Chloe was skittish about watching horror flicks after that. “At the time, most of my friends were boys, and they were all into scary movies. But by the next year boys and girls weren’t hanging out together anymore and my friends who were girls weren’t so interested. Which was good!”

While many kids (and yes, especially boys) do seem to be drawn to the horror genre at this age, others are very sensitive to disturbing images. “It’s not unusual at all, actually,” says Jacqueline Milner-Clerk, a clinical psychologist in Fall River, NS. “Preteens don’t have the same coping mechanisms that adults, or even adolescents, do to cope with fearful stimuli. I think grey areas, like ghosts, are particularly scary for them; they have the intelligence and imagination to take these things to another level.”

A really bad experience, like Chloe had, will sensitize them and make things worse, says Patrick McGrath, professor of psychology, paediatrics and psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. On the other hand, kids who have been completely protected from disturbing material will also have trouble, he says, because they “have not developed coping skills to deal with adverse events.”

Coping with scary content is not a matter of maturity either, McGrath says, but simply a different level of sensitivity. And as special effects become ever more realistic, finding a good movie a more sensitive child can enjoy becomes more challenging.

Parents have an important role to play in helping sensitive kids avoid watching shows that will give them the willies, says psychologist Glenn Di Pasquale, of Newmarket, Ont. “You can’t rely on nine- to 11-year-olds to handle this on their own.” So, with that in mind, what should parents do to quell film fright? Read on for some tips.

 Help your child make the call. “She can ask herself: Am I comfortable? Am I feeling too scared? Would my mom let me watch it?” suggests Milner-Clerk.

Brainstorm what to say. Chloe would just say to her friends, “I don’t want to see that. Can’t we watch something else?” She says sometimes she and a friend who also disliked scary movies would just go play a board game while the movie was playing. But kids who feel more pressured or have more trouble going against the crowd can always invoke the mean parent. Let your child know that “My dumb parents won’t let me go” is a perfectly legitimate out.

Find out what’s playing. “I think it would be quite appropriate for one parent to ask another what movie they’re planning on watching at a party, and to relay any concerns they might have,” says Milner-Clerk. You don’t need to criticize the other parent’s choice in any way — just let him know if your own child can’t handle that type of film.

Research the movie. Ratings alone may not tell you what you need. After all, The Mummy was rated PG-13 for “adventure-type violence,” but that in no way prepared Chloe for all those scarab beetles!

“I think we need a rating system that gives more importance to violence than to sex,” says DiPasquale. “Our culture is obsessed with sex in movies, despite the fact that there is little research that shows it to be anywhere near as harmful as violent images.” Instead of relying on ratings, go online, says McGrath: “There’s a huge amount of information you can access about a movie before you let your child see it.” When in doubt, you might want to preview it yourself.

Kids-in-mind.com rates films for nudity/sex, profanity and violence/gore. It goes on to describe exactly what the rating is based on, for example, every incident of violence, gore and torture in Saw IV. (It does not offer an opinion on the quality of the film — try rottentomatoes.com for critical reviews.) Google “film name + ratings + parents” and you’ll find a number of useful sites.

Debrief. If your child really wants to watch a film, but is worried it may be too much, watch it with him. That way you can help mediate the more disturbing scenes. If your child has watched a film with friends and found it upsetting, talk it through. “We know these movies have much less of an effect if the kids discuss them with a caring adult afterward,” says DiPasquale.

Understand what bothers your child. Yes, it may be the gory special effects that get to your child. But there are other aspects of movies that can be disturbing. Some kids are fine with blood and guts, but get really upset by apparent cruelty to animals or young children. Some can handle fantasy horror, but are haunted by violence that could really be true (serial killers, say, as opposed to orcs). Chloe has a friend who watched many violent and spooky movies as a preteen. He says only one really scared him: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 black and white classic, Psycho.