by Amy de Putron
How much do you protect your child from seeing scary things? Parents all handle this differently. We should, of course, use our own judgement on how we protect our children. After all, all kids are different and we are the ones who know them best.
My kids handle scary stuff differently. There is a small age gap but my eldest is definitely more immune to being frightened than my daughter is. I do let them use their own judgement most of the time. If they come across something they don’t want to look at, they will turn it off.
Being afraid from time to time is an important part of a child’s development. If we protect kids from seeing scary things they might start to believe that there are many things to be scared of. It’s possible they might develop weaknesses in dealing with negative emotions.
I’ve seen parents avoid certain streets when trick or treating to protect their kids from seeing dramatic house decorations. Avoidance of harmless decorations could send a message to them that these things are a real cause for concern and that your children are too fragile to deal with the world. They may grow up thinking they are unable to face their fears. If your child is scared to go to school on the first day, do you let them stay home? There are times when we have to help them stand up to their fears and build resilience.
Some parents believe kids movies are way too scary for the little people they are aimed at. As I mentioned above, different kids can tolerate different levels of scariness. Shocking kids with stories is not a new concept. Our most beloved children’s authors thought up some very scary characters and situations. From the Big Bad Wolf to The Grand High Witch to Lord Voldemort – these characters and stories are created to challenge young minds and teach them how to deal with unsettling emotions. Many of the older fairytales were written to teach children morals and how to avoid real-life dangers like walking off with strangers! The discomfort caused by reading these stories does make a happy ending more enjoyable. See our previous blog post about why fairy tales are so scary.
Children’s author Cavan Scott says “A scary story is the literary version of a rollercoaster. You strap yourself in and are sent on a thrilling ride that quickens your pulse. Your stomach lurches and your fingers tingle. Then when it’s over, nine-times-out-of-ten, you laugh. You’ve just pushed yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, all without being in actual danger.”
Kids often have more common sense than we give them credit for. If they find a book or a movie scary, they are capable of closing it or turning it off and coming back to it when they are ready.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and foster parent and she knows a lot about resiliency. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, she encourages parents to break the habit of shielding their children from pain. “One of our tendencies is to step in front of kids and say, “I don’t want you to be sad or to deal with heartache or know how scary the world is.” We protect them, and they don’t develop the skills they need. Then they don’t have the resilience to do it for themselves. By allowing kids firsthand experiences to deal with pain or emotions, they get to practice. Just like if we want them to be great soccer players — you wouldn’t go out on the field with them, they need to go out there and practice.”
We live in a scary world. Life isn’t always easy and it’s ok to be scared, sad, worried. Exposure to scary things in safe places will help kids learn to endure their fears and be braver and calmer in real-life situations.
How you can help kids deal with scary things
Helping children deal with things that frighten them will depend on what it is that is causing their fears. From scary movies to natural disasters and other bad stuff that happens in the world, there are a few ways we can help kids deal with the exposure and knowledge.
Communicate and listen
It’s important to keep communication open so they can talk through their worries and fears. Talking about what we are scared of helps us understand fear. It’s good practice to talk about our feelings and not bottle them up.
Explain things honestly
If children ask questions about something that has frightened them, it’s important to answer truthfully so they know they can come to you with their concerns. Help them to understand the difference between what is real and what is made up. If you are unsure how much information to give them, ask them first what they know and clarify what they would like to know.
Being afraid is normal, and it’s ok. Talk about what happens to us physically when we get scared and help them understand those feelings. Reassure your kids that they are safe. Remind them that there are capable and trained people out there who work to keep us safe. We also need to ensure they understand it is also important to be vigilant in certain situations.
Children may develop their own thoughts, ideas and concerns as a result of seeing the news and having some awareness of the goings-on around the world. This can open up discussions about how your family can help those in need.
By exposing kids to confronting things we might help them build the mental strength they need when they are older. Amy Morin says “They’ll be prepared to take on the challenges of the world and be more confident that they are capable and resilient and will be able to do their best.”