Easing Your Child into Scary Things

By Jill Carstens

I will never forget a particular moment when a friend offered to babysit my 3-year-old. She had older children, about ages 7 and 9. I came to pick him up later to find that he was glued to the television watching an extremely scary and violent movie with her children. My heart stopped and I blurted out, “This is too scary for him!” My friend thought I overreacted.

I did not necessarily see an immediate or obvious effect from my son being exposed to such blatant frightening images, but my instinct told me that there were more gradual ways to transition my young child to scary things. There is a difference between being scared and being traumatized and a lot of it depends on the age a child is exposed and the nature of the source.

As an example, when my son was about 4, we went to see my aging grandmother. She was in her 90s, had lost her sight and during our visit she started bleeding slightly from the mouth. She was OK, but that night and several subsequent nights my son had nightmares of his great grandmother bleeding from her mouth with the added detail of all of her teeth spilling out in his dream.

I could not have predicted this scenario and, later, felt bad about exposing my kid to a real-life difficult part of aging in a nursing home. How do we know how to expose our kids gently? How do we deal with impromptu scary things when they are out of our control?

Each family has their own perceptions of what is scary. I suppose I scare easily. I am a worrier. So I am protective of my kid this way. I learned that scary movies did not seem to affect him as much as a real-life challenging circumstance, like seeing his great-grandmother in her last days, or more recently, how badly people drive on the highway.

We cannot control everything our kids are exposed to so I recommend going with your instinct when it comes to situations that are controllable. Although it seems many children are not obviously affected by media violence, I wonder, when they are exposed at very young ages, whether they may become desensitized.

With Halloween just under our belt, make-believe scary has been said to have its benefits. According to a 2021 National Geographic article, sociologist Margee Kerr contends that experiencing “safe fear” helps children to practice their reactions to scary stimuli, managing their emotions around it, which can in turn boost self-confidence.

There are definitely enough real-life scary things going on if you watch the news: COVID, wars, climate change. Who needs a scary movie when you can stream scary on the news. Don’t take for granted that young children are immune to the news playing in the background. Although they might look like they are immersed in play while you watch a news broadcast, it has been shown that many children do take in some of what is going on in the background. This can get internalized if we don’t help them process such information.

I was teaching 2- and 3-year-olds when 9/11 happened. Our instructions from the school director at the time were to avoid discussing this tragedy around our students, and parents were highly discouraged from turning on the news in front of their young children while the images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center played over and over on the screen.

I adhered to these directions. I was pretty uninformed at that time also. But my young child did not see that image on repeat. He later heard all about it in social studies class when he was in third grade, a much more appropriate time to learn and see about that event. He reported to me that he was the only kid in the class who had not seen the video of the towers falling in 2001 and was a little mad at me about it. I will take him being mad at me over possibly being confused or traumatized during that time period.

My advice to parents is to do your best to scaffold exposure to the scary things in life and then provide kids with tools on how to handle them. My grown son and I have regular conversations these days about how to cope with the difficult events happening not just in the world, but also in our fast-changing neighborhood. When stimuli around us becomes too much we take a break from the news, get outside and talk about the things we are grateful about.

Do what you can to head off possible early exposure to violent media. There are controls you can put in place on televisions, computers and phones. Before accepting invitations to play dates make an effort to learn the culture of the household your child is visiting. Get on the same page as the other parents and share your boundaries about media and exposure to potentially violent or scary content.

Again, we can’t be everywhere and we cannot control the world. But we can be intentional and involved in how our children cope with these challenging situations.

Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication. You can view more of her writing on Instagram @lettersfrommissjill. Email her with comments or story ideas at jill@denvernorthstar.com.

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