Can I Let My Kid Watch Horror Movies... Without Screwing Them Up For Life?
I asked two children’s mental health experts.
I distinctly remember the first time I watched Night of the Living Dead. I was about 8 years old, and my mother let me, my older sister, and a few friends watch it together. At the climax of the film, my mom jammed through the mini blinds of our living room window like a zombie, ketchup smeared on her face, scaring the hell out of us.
By this point in my childhood, I had already seen my fair share of horror movies, including Poltergeist and A Nightmare On Elm Street. I may have come out of my childhood fairly unscathed, but I admit that I'm still a little afraid of being alone in the dark and the eerie sound of the "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" nursery rhyme, for that matter (IYKYK).
You might imagine that I grew up to be the type of parent who would never let my kids watch scary movies. While I consider myself a good parent, I admit I'm not that good. Plus, I am way too fascinated with the occult. And actually, I'm of the belief that exploring "taboo" topics that I think my kids are ready to be introduced to is normal and healthy.
That doesn't mean I'd let my 6-year-old watch a rated-R horror film, but it does mean that I've introduced him and his tween sister to movies that some people would consider too scary. My method has always been starting off with a conversation about the topic, then if it's all green lights, sitting down to watch together. Sometimes, that means we have to pause and discuss, fast-forward, or call it quits altogether. Either way, there's always a follow-up conversation that usually inspires laughter more than fear.
As confident as I am in my parenting choices, I have wondered if letting my kids watch scary movies (because even Disney can be scary — remember when Scar kills Mufasa?) could potentially have some life-altering, negative impact. After chatting with two child mental health experts, I feel assured that, when introduced appropriately, exploring scary themes as a family can be a positive experience.
Is it OK to let kids watch scary movies?
"Children's exposure to a variety of media, especially horror, can be an important opportunity to develop important neural pathways and explore complex emotions with safe guidance," says school psychologist Kara Grimes, explaining, "Children develop their emotions through observation, discussion, and trial. [So] exploring media that features a variety of emotions, including fear, with parental guidance can assist children's needs for emotional self-exploration in a low-stakes, safe environment [and increase] self-awareness and emotional self-management." Still, she says that doing so in an age-appropriate manner that aligns with each child's individual capacity is key.
At what age can I let my kids watch horror?
Parenting psychologist Reena B. Patel believes that kids are usually ready to be introduced to spooky themes around the ages of 5 to 7. "[By that age], kids have a great understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality and are more likely to be ready to try a very mild scary movie. This differs from child to child depending on development milestones and readiness and what they have already been exposed to at home, at friends' houses, [or at school]," says Patel. However, she and Grimes both recommend that parents consider the specific needs and developmental level of their own children, in addition to reviewing media rating guidelines.
How should I introduce my kids to scary movies?
The experts say that the first step for parents is to explore the topic before actually watching. This gives children the opportunity to voice their feelings about the subject, while also serving as a clue for parents as to their readiness.
"First, ask them! Get their permission if they want to watch a scary movie and how that might make them feel. Talk to them about feelings they might have when watching a scary movie and help them identify those feelings so they are aware of them and can let you know when those feelings are happening. Let them know we can turn it off at any time, so they don't feel afraid or embarrassed to ask," offers Patel.
Grimes says that when parents engage in spooky content with their children, it opens up the conversation in a way that can make kids feel trust and support — a great exercise for discussing perspective and sharpening problem-solving skills that promote cognitive flexibility and resilience.
Some tips for parents of first-time scary movie-watchers include:
- Gauge their level of readiness
- Observe their interest in the theme
- Research and pre-screen appropriate starter films
- Ask their permission to watch
- Discuss the film before watching
- Let them know it can be paused to discuss or stopped at any time
- Engage them throughout by asking questions
- Watch for signs that the content may be too advanced
- Follow up with a discussion after the film
Can allowing my kids to watch horror movies have any negative effects?
While every child has a unique experience, it's unlikely that movies with mild scary themes will result in any long-term negative impact. However, both experts say that it is important for parents to be aware of the potential effects that can include anxiety, panic, sleep disturbances, PTSD, as well as transient fears such as increased fear of the dark and strangers, trouble sleeping, and nightmares.
Parents can ask themselves these questions:
- Is my child easily frightened?
- Does my child have anxiety?
- Is my child prone to nightmares?
- Are there any special circumstances, circumstances, or feelings that could be exacerbated by exposure to scary content?
At the end of the day, the choice of whether or not to introduce scary or horror films to kids is for parents to decide, and the answer will probably look different for each family. The critical thing here lies in taking the time to do your research before diving in.