When I attempted to watch Home Alone last Christmas with my then-nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old twins, I didn’t expect that we would have to turn it off a third of the way through because they were crawling into my lap and screaming in fear. Any comedic value was gone with the idea of being left alone and then needing to fight off burglars while dealing with maybe a scary old neighbor was too much for them even though I told them the old guy was a helper. I guess I should have predicted that because the snow monster in ‘Frozen,’ the adventures in ‘Jumanji,’ and all of ‘Coco’ was too scary for my sensitive kids. What are often considered kid-friendly, family movies are often too much for my scaredy cats.
I grew up watching ‘Scooby-Doo,’ ‘Gremlins,’ ‘Ghost Busters,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’—the classics that terrified us at the time and probably left an impression, if not an emotional scar, and no adult seemed to bat an eye. As a parent now, I would never show my kids movies I saw at their age because I have zero time for those nightmares. I won’t even push age-appropriate scary movies. I think we watched ‘Casper’ last Halloween as our “spooky” movie.
But when a movie isn’t considered to be scary, there is almost always a part that I have to actively talk them through. And sometimes we bail. I learned my lesson and take full credit for what I did to my oldest while watching ‘The NeverEnding Story.’ How did I forget about the horse? Right…trauma at an early age does that. Sorry, kid.
Anyway, some kids are just more sensitive that others and that’s totally normal because some kids struggle to separate fiction from reality. They just can’t remove themselves from the idea that the bad guy could get them or that on of their parents may leave them or even die. WTF Disney? But still, I didn’t think ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Lady and The Tramp’ were going to be a problem.
Sierra Filucci, executive parenting editor at Common Sense Media says, “Grotesque faces, things that are outside of realistic faces, or just sweet, relatable big-eye, big-smile faces can be disturbing to kids, and adults don’t really see it that way.”
Instead of simply telling a kid that everything is fine and there is nothing to be afraid of we need to validate their feelings. Just because we’re not scared doesn’t mean they’re not and to tell them otherwise is to gaslight their emotions. I have paused a movie and explained what was going to happen. I have assured them that the character in danger is going to be okay. I have pointed out the silliness in what is scary to them and reminded them that what they are seeing isn’t real. Sometimes that’s enough and we get through the scene. Other times we have to pick a new movie.
Even before we pick the movie, I use Common Sense Media as a guide. Once we decide on a couple of options we watch the trailer at least twice to get the feel for the movie. I read the description to them and remind them we can always stop the movie if they’re not into it or if someone is scared.
What’s interesting to me is that my kids have pretty vivid imaginations and some of what they see is what they do while playing. They love hide and seek and spy games. They beat the shit out of one another with pool noodles and set up elaborate Nerf Gun battles. My son loves to draw monsters, aliens, and fight scenes between them but when it comes to seeing them in movies, he wants nothing to do with it. As many toy swords and ninja stars as he keeps under his bed, he is the first to wave the white flag when they come into use during a fight scene in a movie.
Filucci also says. “Sometimes it’s really surprising for parents to see what freaks their kids out.”
My son loved ‘The Mandalorian’ series despite all of the weird creatures and blaster guns so I thought ‘Iron Man’ would be a good first super hero movie that didn’t involve Lego figures. Nope. There was “too much fighting.” And compared to ‘The Mandalorian,’ there wasn’t a super cute Grogu to ease the tension.
My daughters got through ‘Iron Man’ by knowing there were two more movies after the first one; they felt better knowing Iron Man was going to survive the bad guys. They are willing to try the second film in the series, but my son has said he will watch the ‘Paw Patrol’ movie again instead. That’s the type of gentle, predictable film my kids are drawn to—especially my son—so it makes it hard to agree on a movie. It’s even harder to find one I am excited to watch with them. My kids are ‘Air Bud,’ ‘Space Jam,’ ‘Paw Patrol’ kind of kids which is absolutely fine.
Picking a movie takes a little more time and work, but I’m not in a rush to desensitize my kids. Nor do I think they should have to power through something uncomfortable. Dr. Joanne Cantor, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, found that “children who did not intend to view but went along with others and younger children were most at risk for experiencing enduring fright effects.” Kids also experienced crying, nausea, and “clinging tendencies.” No thanks.
I would like to watch something with a bit more depth but it’s not worth terrorizing my kids to get a more complicated story line. And honestly, it’s really sweet that they’re not ready for some of the movies their peers are watching. It won’t be long before layers of their innocence are gone so I’m more than okay to make family movie night fun for my scaredy cats.