How can I keep my kids from being frightened by scary media this Halloween?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Q: My kids (10 and 7) have been invited to a number of Halloween-themed parties this year that are being held at their schools and at the homes of a few of their friends. Several of these parties will have scary movies, scary music, and in one case (the school’s) a dramatic reading of a scary book. I’m concerned that while all of these media are “for kids”, my kids may be too scared by them. Neither of my children particularly love Halloween, and two years ago, my eldest saw a relatively tame scary movie that gave her nightmares for weeks! How can I tell what scary media will be okay for my kids and which media they should avoid?

~In Need of Halloween Help in Lincoln, NH

A: Dear Halloween,

Our culture embraces scary media as entertainment in part because it can draw quick and reliable responses from the broadest audience—the primal human response of fear crosses cultural and language barriers with ease. Normal human response to something we fear is to avoid it, as your children are doing, or to attempt to master it, by seeing it over and over again.  Many parents want their children to master fear, believing that it will strengthen and prepare them for the “real world”. Avoidance, however, may be the healthier response—not only is it a survival skill that helps your children recognize and avoid danger, but it is also an expression of their natural empathy for others—they don’t want to see others threatened or hurt.

Watching, reading, and listening to scary media in order to master them is desensitizing oneself to violence. If we want our children to dislike and avoid violence for themselves, but to also stand up for others who are victims of violence, it is important that they maintain their dislike of things that hurt, scare, or coerce others. Thus, the concept of “toughening kids up” may work against what many parents want for their children.

One you have seen something, you can’t “unsee” it, no matter how hard you try. While findings indicate that desensitization and increased aggression may result from repeated viewings of violent media, research by Joanne Cantor has shown that children who are scared by media only require a single exposure to be traumatized. She found college students who had seen Jaws as young children and who still would not go into the water.

To make decisions about what media to share, remember that you are the best judge of your own children. The entertainment industry’s ratings of movies, TV, and video games are based on what industry employees think parents will let children see, not what is best for their stage of development, and the age ratings don’t necessarily apply to your particular child. For specific media, I recommend that you actually screen the movies or TV shows or read the books, get advice from other parents who have done so, or read parent-oriented reviews and then decide whether you think these media will work for your children. Of course, you can’t prescreen everything and children are bound to see media that scare them, so remember that what’s most important is to be prepared to discuss what they see and help them make meaning of it, incorporating it into their view of the world in safe and healthy ways.

One option during a season like Halloween where scary events can be anticipated is to have your children throw their own party that includes less scary media or other activities that work for them (remember bobbing for apples?). If your children are invited to a party and don’t want to be left out, inform the host that your children are easily frightened and ask them to help your kids leave the room without calling attention to it when scary stories or media are about to happen. This may clue the parents in so they change the program to be more inclusive, but, even if the program is not changed, it can empower your children to remove themselves from scary media moments that you didn’t anticipate.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®