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Feature Article How Much Scary Is Too Much for Kids?

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For those who enjoy a good scary movie, Halloween is a great time to find something a little spooky. But there are a lot of scary shows to choose from now, and not all of them are kitschy Halloween fun. Not to mention you can’t always tell by the parental guide or ratings what might be too scary for your kids.

“A child’s growing brain can’t always tell what’s real and what’s not the way an adult’s can,” said William George, DO, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow with Samaritan Mental Health. “You might find a show about zombies entertaining but to a 6-year-old it can be terrifying.”

An article published in the journal Human Communication Research reports that children under the age of 10 are particularly vulnerable to the scary things they see on TV, and that fantasy and fact-based scenarios were equally scary to kids in this age group.

“Around the age of 7, kids start to become more aware of what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t,” said Dr. George. “By age 10, most kids have a firm grasp of the difference between fantasy and reality and can go through the mental process of telling themselves they don’t need to be scared in a certain scenario because it’s not real.”

However, that isn’t a green light to queue up the horror flicks when your child reaches 10. Dr. George cautions that blood, violence and gore are extremely disturbing to children and should be avoided before the age of 16. Many horror movies also have sexual content that is not appropriate for young viewers.

“What kids watch has an affect on them beyond being scared of the dark or unexpected noises,” said Dr. George. “Watching a show that they are not developmentally ready to process can be very disturbing and can impact their thoughts and behaviors into adulthood.”

Dr. George explains that a child’s growing brain is learning how to make sense of the world and the surreal experiences in a scary show can distort what they view as normal. Since young children don’t have as much life experience to draw on to put something frightening into perspective and their budding cognitive coping techniques the ability to dismiss something as unrealistic or improbable are not yet fully formed, being exposed to things that are too scary can lead to lasting phobias and anxiety.

“Essentially it creates an environment where the child doesn’t feel safe and feels that maybe the world is not a safe place,” said Dr. George. “That can create a tremendous amount of stress for a child.”

A study on long-term fright reactions published in Media Psychology found that of people who were exposed to something they found too scary during childhood, more than 26 percent reported negative effects that lasted at least a year and into adulthood. More than half of the participants reported that they had trouble eating or sleeping following the viewing.

To help you pick an age-appropriate show for everyone in the family, Dr. George shares these tips:

  • When watching TV together, the show should be appropriate for the youngest member of the family.
  • Anything potentially scary should not be viewed by children younger than 7. Blood, gore, monsters, zombies, aggressive animals and haunted houses are all too much for kids at this age.
  • Around age 8 and older kids, can handle some light spookiness like a ghost or a mystery. Holding a pillow or stuffed animal can help kids this age during suspenseful moments. Continue choosing shows that are not bloody or violent. Hold off on any hard-core horror films until kids are at least 16.
  • Watch the program with your child and check in occasionally. Ask questions like, “How are you feeling? Is this too scary? Should we turn it off?”
  • No matter if your child says they like it, stop watching scary shows if your child begins exhibiting signs of ongoing fear or extreme stress. This may include a fear of going to bed, being by themselves, the dark, loud noises, a specific animal or a specific scenario like going into the water.
  • Know what’s on. Older siblings, the baby sitter, friends and slumber parties can all lead to your child seeing something they aren’t ready for. Most children who see a show that’s too scary don’t choose it themselves someone else has usually chosen it and the child goes along with it.

Dr. George also cautions parents to pay attention to other frightening factors around Halloween. You might need to make a little extra effort to avoid the neighbor who pops out of the bushes dressed as a mummy or the yard decorated with headless dolls if your child is too young for that kind of scary stimulation. But it will all be worth it if you don’t have to comfort a frightened child every night until next Halloween.

If your child seems to be having difficulty processing something scary and has ongoing fear or anxiety, Samaritan clinics offer integrated behavioral health specialists who can help. Talk with your primary care provider.

For a more in-depth discussion about anxiety, visit our health library.