Death is a weirdly ubiquitous feature of kids’ movies. A sweeping study of the top box office films from 1937 to 2014 concluded that violent death was more likely in children’s films than films targeting adults, including thrillers and horror movies. Children’s animated films, “rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” the developmental psychologists in charge of the study reported.
But those same experts also affirm what we instinctively know: All that death is there for a reason, and with guidance from parents, it can be a positive thing. Foundational work by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom found that children are preoccupied with death from an early age, and also that these thoughts can be both haunting and pervasive. Movies depicting loss can provide a constructive way to explore these common fears.
“Movies can be a friendly way of introducing children to some difficult concepts and an age-appropriate way of normalizing an experience they may have already had,” says Kristy Labardee, a marriage and family therapist whose practice includes helping parents strengthen their skills. For example, young viewers can grieve alongside Simba, and realize along with him that his father’s sudden death is not his fault.
That’s not to say that parents should throw caution to the wind. As pressure mounts to broaden the audience base for big-screen releases, some family films are depicting more intense situations.
Children’s movies have evolved from the off-screen shooting of Bambi’s mother to the massacre of mother and siblings that starts “Finding Nemo.” Guy Ritchie, a poster child of ’90s indie bloodshed, helms the recent live-action remake of “Aladdin,” which includes a scene in which Jafar tortures Jasmine’s father. Blockbusters such as “Avengers: Endgame” interweave kid-friendly superhero action with complex adult themes. For parents, it’s not always clear how to help our kids make sense of Captain America leading weepy grief counseling sessions, or Hawkeye watching his entire family vaporize in the instant between his wife asking what condiments their kids want on their hot dogs and their reply.
The switch from animation to live action can also make such scary scenes more harrowing for kids, especially younger children who have more trouble distinguishing between reality and movie scenes.
“Children can’t tolerate fear as well as adults because the area of the brain that calms emotions and puts things into perspective isn’t fully developed until later in life,” says pediatric psychologist Mona Delahooke. “So we must ask ourselves, for whose benefit is the intense content? The adult buying the ticket or the child’s? Watching a movie should be an enriching experience for a child and not a stress-inducing one.”
So how can parents make good choices about which movies to see? It’s important to look beyond the ratings. Family therapist and parenting author Noha Alshugairi points out that movie ratings do not reflect the values of all families, nor are they decided in consultation with mental health experts. She adds: “It falls onto each family to determine its own guidelines.”
The experts we consulted all agreed that it is important for parents to do their due diligence about movies’ thematic content using websites such as CommonSenseMedia.org, and via word of mouth.
Part of what can help parents make the call for an individual child, says Labardee, is considering the losses your child has experienced, as well as any individual sensitivities to particular themes. Losses and sensitivities warrant extra caution, especially if the child struggles to manage their emotions or has a hard time reaching out for support.
Tina Payne Bryson, a parenting expert and the co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child,” says: “It’s also important to base our decisions on the child’s developmental stage of emotional maturity, not their cognitive maturity. When kids are really bright and verbal, adults may assume they are ready for more mature content.
“If you’re not sure, err on the side of protecting them from content that you think might be too upsetting, particularly in their younger years."
Once they’ve made to the choice to go to a movie, parents can prepare kids for what they are about to see. Kids generally don’t mind spoilers, as evidenced by their fondness for endlessly re-watching movies. Previewing key story elements can help children better handle challenging themes in the more intense environment of a movie theater. Many studios have websites with trailers and extended clips that you can watch with your children after you check whether they are appropriate. Studios often also publish picture books and novelizations of movies before their release date.
Telling young children that a movie isn’t real can help, but it’s not enough.
“If you think about the times you’re watching a movie, and you clearly know it’s imaginary, the suspense and devastation and intense emotions have a significant impact — our muscles tense, our attention narrows, our hearts beat faster, etcetera,” Bryson says. “This suspension of disbelief and the way in which we enter into the make-believe is what makes movies so compelling and intense. This separation of real and not-real is even more blurry for children. The brain doesn’t process actual threat and virtual threat that differently.”
That physiological experience of threat, even when we know it’s not real, can be overwhelming for some. Alshugairi points out that it’s important not to dismiss those reactions (“But it’s just a movie!”) or overreact (“You poor thing!”). The former can lead to children not expressing their feelings later by giving the message that parents are not comfortable discussing sadness or fear. The latter can teach them to depend on parents to manage their strong emotions for them.
Instead, help children learn to handle their reactions by helping them to identify what they are feeling.
“Ask open-ended questions without judgment, such as ‘Wow, that was quite a movie! What did you think about it?’" Delahooke says. “Or going further, you can share your own reaction: ‘I was a little scared when so-and-so happened in the movie. What about you?’”
Given that you can’t always predict what scenes will be in the movie, or how your child will react to them, it’s good to equip children of all ages with a plan for how to cope if something is too much.
“Setting up a small signal with the child ahead of time — like squeezing their hand twice — may be helpful to remind them that it’s pretend, that they’re safe, and that you’re there with them,” Bryson says.
A sense of control over the moviegoing experience helps children of all ages to be more resilient. “Letting kids know we can turn this off if it’s too much, we can leave the theater, etcetera, is powerful,” says Cynthia Olaya, a school psychologist who works with teens, adding, “feeling trapped is what can lead to trauma.”
Sharing control can be challenging for parents who may have been raised to do what they were told. Bryson points out it can also pay huge dividends: “What a wonderful skill for a child to learn that if something is making them feel unsafe that they can do something about it and care for themselves.”
Grace Lovelace is a freelance writer and yoga and meditation teacher in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Erika Flesher is a mental health counselor and advocate in the Seattle area.
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