What Scares Your Child?

Now, before I even get started, before any of you jump on me for being overly protective and censorious, I’m not talking about little scares here. I’m talking about the kind of fright that can cause sleepless nights or change behavior patterns. And these serious kinds of scares are more common than you’d think. As Joanne Cantor writes in “Mommy, I’m Scared”: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We can Do to Protect Them:

“If your child has a severe fright reaction, you are certainly not alone. Your child is not odd, unstable, or otherwise unbalanced, and there are good reasons why the reaction occurred. Sharing your experience with others will no doubt be therapeutic for you, and it’s important to warn other parents about potential effects on their children.” ¹

I can already hear murmurs of dissent out there, grumbling about mollycoddling our kids, and “I saw plenty of scary movies in my day and I turned out all right.” That may be true, but before you dismiss the whole topic, just give a little thought to what is out there, media-wise, that simply did not exist when we were kids. When I was young there was a movie that scared the bejesus out of me… and all I ever saw was the poster. It was called It’s Alive and it seriously creeped me out. Now how does this poster compare to the horrific chills of a modern movie trailer you might see on tv… which anyone might see on tv? The role that media plays in our lives today, omnipresent and unavoidable, means that there is no longer a dividing line between what children see and what adults see. There is an ever-increasing bleed of adult media into the consciousness of children – from horror movie trailers airing at family viewing times, or popping up on websites, to graphic and terrifying movie posters (much more so than It’s Alive) in bus shelters, and scowling down at us from billboards.

Think about how many teens or grown adults were so affected by the movie Jaws that they were hesitant for years afterward to swim in the ocean. (Or even pools in some instances.) That is an irrational response from supposedly mature and rational adults. Now think about how a child would react to that film… and think about how tame Jaws seems compared to movies out now.

Many, many kids have been scared silly over the years by the witch and flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz… and yet today anyone over about the age of 4 would find them quaint and a bit hokey.

My point, and I do have one, is that our media diet today is growing ever more violent and scary, just as it is becoming more and more difficult to shield our children from exposure to it.

Inappropriateness runs amok

There are all kinds of ways in which children might see age-inappropriate shows: watching an older sibling’s movie pick, wandering in to see what Mommy and Daddy are viewing, or sneaking a peek at a taboo movie in secret. There are a few other windows of opportunity that you might not have thought about, however, unexpected ones, such as television ads, particularly movie trailers, that can pop up at unexpected times during otherwise family-friendly programming.

Or inappropriate movies on planes, either on a big screen or on your neighbour’s individual screen.

Or newscasts, which can be immensely troubling for kids. In recent years news reports have become uncommonly graphic and unnecessarily detailed, especially in recounting cases of violent assaults and murders, war zone atrocities, and natural disasters.

So much for adult-oriented programs. Even the shows that are designed specifically for children can be troubling.

“One study found that children’s cartoons contain 29% more violence than adult primetime programming.” ²

Sure we grew up with the ‘old school’ toons, and think nothing of cartoon violence, but perhaps that is the deleterious effect it had on us – we think nothing of cartoon violence. It barely registers as violence at all in our minds.

Every child is unique, of course, and it is important to watch your child and listen to them talk about what they’ve seen. Some children will ask you to turn something off if it’s too intense for them, others won’t say a word. If you can get a sense of your child’s tolerance for scary movies, then you can more accurately predict what he or she can or cannot handle. After that, the best tools at your disposal are accurate and detailed descriptions of movies and shows (like the reviews that I’m attempting to provide on this blog), which will enable you to pick the best shows for your child.

What Scares Preschoolers

Children can be scared by a wide range of things, and the biggest obstacle to predicting what will give them sleepless nights is that we, as adults, even when watching the same movie, are seeing a different movie than they are. Children, especially very young children, process sensory input differently than we do.

Studies have revealed that preschool children don’t always make full sense of a sentence. For example, when told that “most snakes are not poisonous”, they will remember the “poisonous” part but miss the actual gist of the message.³

They approach images and visual stories in the same manner. Appearance is everything: visual power can trump the overall message of a film.

“…children are not able to follow narratives well and often dwell on the details that make the greatest impression on them rather than on where the plot is going. For them, it’s as much about the journey as about the destination.” ⁴

a light-hearted moment from The Little Mermaid

As adults, we are so used to the general conventions of narrative that we construct our stories with a blind eye to this tendency. We load on the scary and sad events, confident that tying it all up with a happy ending will leave everyone satisfied and serene. Unfortunately it doesn’t always console a frightened child to say “Just wait… things will work out!”

Preschoolers are scared by characters with a threatening or grotesque appearance, and won’t always understand that such a character can be gentle or even a hero.

“Young children – before about age 8 – are most frightened by the immediate sights and sounds on the screen. A scary-looking monster, a scream, a loud argument, and a fierce animal are all very threatening to young children and can affect them deeply. For young children, an ogreish-looking mother – even if she is kind and well intentioned – is scary. Think of how many young children are frightened of clowns!” ⁵

When my daughter was three, she was so bothered by any unhappy expression that she even had a strong aversion to poor old Telly on Sesame Street, the muppet with the built-in sad mouth. And Oscar? She couldn’t bear to watch him because he always sounded so angry, it didn’t matter in the least what he was actually saying or doing.

It’s all about appearances. Joanne Cantor relates that when she watched Gone With the Wind at a very young age, she missed the whole point of the story. “[A] five year old watches Gone With the Wind and doesn’t even see how selfish Scarlett is, because she’s so beautiful.” ⁶  At the earliest ages beauty equals goodness, an interpretation that needs to be turned upside down as we grow older, but early on it’s a child’s instinctive shorthand for assessing character.

Cantor writes that, in addition to scary faces, children are especially disturbed by screams and cackling laughter, as anyone who was traumatized by the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz can attest. (Besides that laugh, she has a green face, making her doubly scary.)

Another troubling event for many youngsters is transformation. Cantor writes that “transformations are a breach of trust that we know who and what people/things are and what they will remain.”⁷  One character that really troubled young viewers when Cantor was doing her research was the Incredible Hulk. The fact that he was on the side of good did not help them come to terms with the image of someone losing their temper and changing into a green monster.

Children also have a natural empathy for other children. Seeing a child terrified and threatened is much more upsetting than seeing an adult in the same situation.

These are a few indications of what can frighten preschoolers, though once again, we must remember that every child is different. The transformation of the wicked Queen in Snow White from a beautiful woman into an ugly crone seems a textbook example of what should scare a young child, but my daughter sat through that without flinching. What really sent her running out of the room was that face in the mirror!

Every child is interpreting what they see in their own way, informed by their own pre-existing anxieties and history. In the end, each child is so unique that we cannot really predict what will set them off. So the best we can do is simply try to make them feel better…

Comforting a Scared Preschooler

The most important thing is not to belittle or ignore a child’s fears. It doesn’t help them in the least to say “That’s not scary!” because you’re telling them they are wrong to feel the way they do. And advising them to keep telling themselves “it isn’t real” doesn’t help much either. Their ability to use abstract thoughts to overcome frightening images is very weak.

More successful and comforting strategies are the ones we instinctively turn to – hugs and cuddling, paired with that old parental standby: Distraction. “Who wants ice cream?!”

What the child needs most is closeness with their parent and something else to think about, with some reassurance that nothing bad is going to happen to them.

While watching scary shows children defend themselves by covering their eyes or hiding behind the couch and peeking out. This allows them some control over their exposure to the scary images. If it’s a DVD you could also let them have the remote and fast forward or skip scary parts. For very loud scenes you can always hit the mute. I also found that in a movie theatre it helped a lot to move to the back row, which reduced the size of the screen in our vision, and made it less overwhelming.

Joanne Cantor writes that once children are a little older, you can tell them to hang on, the story will turn around and it will help them continue to the end, but with the very young, she says, just get the heck out, turn it off and distract them with something else.

Also for slightly older children (5 or 6) it might help to watch shows about stagecraft and how movies are made. Seeing an actor putting on scary makeup, or watching how movie monsters are built might turn the whole topic into one of interest for them rather than terror.⁸

What Scares Older Children

“[In general,] preschool children are generally more frightened by fantasy figures, and … by the end of elementary school most children are more frightened by things that could really happen.” ⁹

It makes sense that older children are more frightened by events that they perceive could possibly happen to them. The main problem with this is that television exaggerates risks. For example only 0.2% of crimes reported by the FBI are murders, but in reality-based television programs 50% of the crimes are murders.¹⁰ Children can develop a skewed perception of threat as a result of the general landscape that is presented to them on tv.

In past decades the threat of nuclear war was a major cause of teenage anxiety. Now the news brings us a double whammy of terror: serial killers and terrorists. And teenagers have access to ever more numerous ‘slasher’ films, the viewing of which is almost seen as a rite of passage.

The incommunicability of pre-teens and teenagers exacerbates the situation, as they don’t confide in their parents, turning instead to same-age peers. Yet an adult is far better equipped to put frightening issues into the proper perspective.

Comforting the School-Age Child

Older kids don’t fall for simple distraction, but it is easier to talk and use logic to combat their fears. For natural disasters, fire, storm or flood, you might talk about emergency preparedness and let your child participate in forming exit plans. They might not totally understand probability statistics (how many grownups do?), but if you tell them you’ve never heard of a tornado in your community that should help.

Once again, you might be able to turn fears into an interest in weather and natural science, if you find the right documentaries or library books to provide further background information.

If they are reacting to news stories of real events, they might want to channel their energies into raising money for aid efforts.

Your children take their cues from you, too. If the issue is one of violent crime, it won’t help if the topic freaks you out as well. The calmer and less emotional you are when describing or talking about these things, the more effective your words will be in putting threats into perspective.¹¹

And Cantor’s final and best advice of all:

If all else fails, just be there and listen.

Final Strategies

Strict control over programming is your first line of defense.

Check any rating information or reviews you can find.

Opt for DVDs over broadcast tv.

When there’s an age range in the viewers, always pick your show with the youngest audience member in mind.

Participate in their viewing, sit with them, talk about what you see.

Be careful about your own viewing. Save the nightly news for after they go to bed.

Remember, they will still get scared from time to time, it’s unavoidable, but if they are watching age-appropriate shows at least their fears should be less severe and more manageable.

Take their anxieties seriously. Spend the time. Dole out the hugs.


Both of the books I read for this commentary and cite below are insightful and very well documented. Excellent for further reading if you are concerned about this topic.

¹ Joanne Cantor, “Mommy, I’m Scared”: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We can Do to Protect Them. (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1998) p. 209.

² Dimitri A. Christakis and Frederick J. Zimmerman, The Elephant in the Living Room: Making Television Work for Your Kids. (New York: Rodale, 2006) p. 109.

³ Op cit. Cantor, p. 128.

⁴ Op. cit. Christakis, p. 111

⁵ Ibid., p. 108

⁶ Op. cit. Cantor, p. 60

⁷ Ibid., p. 81

⁸ Ibid., pp. 126 to 136

⁹ Ibid., p. 46

¹⁰ Op. cit. Christakis, p. 112

¹¹ Op. cit. Cantor, pp. 147-150


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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