I wrote last week about the Far Side cartoon and the ketchup. After laughing at Gary Larson, my next thought is, “Why did the parent take their child to this horror movie in the first place?” There have been many parents in my office who are worried that their five-year old is scared to go to sleep and they seem surprised when I suggest that it could be because they were watching Child’s Play and Saw V together last weekend. While allowing children to feel their fear in a safe environment is healthy, taking a child to an adult horror movie is rarely a good idea. And there’s enough scary stuff already in media that is for children.
Recently, I took a course on Fantasy & Science Fiction literature and we re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. While most of us in the class could recite lines and had strong memories of characters, very few of us were aware of what many people call the “death jokes.” They are everywhere. Did we miss these while we read them growing up or did we unconsciously laugh at them while knowing we were all still in Wonderland? Without getting too deep into how psychoanalysis explains it (perhaps another post…), it’s very notable that an amazing amount of stories for children have a strong aspect of fear and violence built in.
- Hansel & Gretel abandoned in the woods by their parents.
- Red Riding Hood stalked by the wolf who devours granny before swallowing Red.
- Harry Potter–this kid could not catch a break for seven books.
- Willy Wonka—I am still waiting for someone to explain for me that boat ride of horror.
The list could keep going. Many developmental psychologists feel that children can work out some of their own fears through these tales in order to make the children more prepared for facing fears in the real world. It’s like if your daughter falls off her bike for the first time and you’re present to hug her while she cries and to kiss the boo boo. As she gets older she’ll learn how (metaphorically, hopefully) to do that for herself; she learned she could fall off, but get up again. The way it works with stories is that your daughter can hear about the Three Little Pigs facing their fear and defeating the Wolf. She can be scared and discover that she can also move through that fear from the safety of the playroom floor.
So keep age in mind while you’re looking at movies this Halloween. Maybe It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is all you and your child can handle and that’s fine, but check your reaction to your child’s fear. Are you dismissing their fear by being the Ketchup Bottle Parent and saying, it’s not real. They may know it’s make believe—but they’re still scared. (Heck, you should sit with me during a Freddy Krueger movie. I know it’s fake, but my fingers are still covering my eyes.) Note whether they asking for comfort or are you swooping in to offer it? Are they able to do it on their own? Knowing your child as well as you do, take a breath to make sure your actions are helping them learn the messiness of how to manage their own sense of being afraid.
Of course, if a story has led to your child obsessing about any fear then there could be a few things at play. Your child may need more comfort and support from you. They may need some help delving into why they’ve gotten “stuck” on something—was there a recent event that they are connecting with this? There may be some reason to seek out some more support to help them through this.
My main point here is going back to that parental ketchup bottle. With good intentions we often rush to “help” our children and that can get in the way of allowing them to grow.
Except for that Willy Wonka scene. I watch that and still want my Mommy.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.