When it comes to the question, ‘Is It Okay to Let Kids Watch Horror Films?’ caution is key. While children can become stronger by confronting fear, thrillers like Stranger Things aren’t suitable for every child. My own sixth-grader once asked to watch this dark sci-fi show on Netflix, but I immediately dismissed the idea. ‘Are you kidding?’ I told her, ‘It’s way too scary.’ Even the show’s own visual effects team had to tone down the monstrous elements in the most recent season due to their intensity.
I was afraid that adding a scary show to the mix would make kids even more afraid since 5.4 million kids were identified with anxiety in 2020 alone.
Then I found a study that said people who liked horror movies did better mentally during the pandemic, which was a very scary time in history. “If things are scary in the real world, it makes sense to some people to overcome something scary in a TV show, video game, or book,” says Coltan Scrivner, the study’s lead author.
The study’s authors wrote, “Horror use may be linked to less psychological distress because horror fiction lets people practice safely dealing with negative emotions.” Does this mean that kids could watch shows like “Stranger Things”?
Scary movies could help people become more strong.
Scrivner’s study was mostly about adults, so it’s not clear if kids who watch scary movies will have the same positive effects on their minds. But, says Shelli Dry, OTD, who used to be the head of clinical operations for a pediatric therapy provider, learning to deal with fear does help kids build resilience.
“That’s kind of a healthy fear,” says Dr. Dry, when kids dress up as scary characters and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. This experience “helps the child build a little bit of resilience because it gives them a chance to get scared and then get over it.”
Watching a scary movie gives you another chance to feel scared and work through that feeling in a relatively safe setting. According to Scrivner, this is also a great way to develop compassion and an understanding of other people’s perspectives. When kids see how people in stories deal with scary things, they can learn how to develop their own attitude toward survival.
Dr. Dry says that one way to build resilience is to be able to recognize the good things and find ways to deal with bad things. While we were quarantined, my kids and I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final and scariest film in the Harry Potter series. The movie has a scary villain and a lot of exciting scenes, but it also shows how brave, loyal, and in love the main characters are.
Think about how scared your child is.
So, should you put that old scary movie on for a family movie night? Each family will have a different story.
Dr. Dry says that parents should consider what their family stands for. Do you let scary movies into your house and like to watch them? If the answer is yes, you should figure out if your child is ready. Even though there is no set age when scary movies are okay, Dr. Dry says that very young children shouldn’t watch them because they could cause long-term worry. Around age 4, kids are learning how to deal with the fears that come with being a kid, and adding scary movies to that could be too much.
Next, think about your child’s hobbies and personality. Dr. Dry says, “Some kids are pretty good at saying, ‘That’s not real,’ and they say it very matter-of-factly.” Some people are more sensitive and need more time to get over something scary. Also, remember that what scares one child might not bother another. Depending on who sees it, a movie about cats or bees could be funny or scary.
When it comes to my own kids, I’ve seen different reactions to scary movies and TV shows. My children begged to see an image of the Demogorgon, the terrifying faceless creature from Stranger Things Season 1. My 11-year-old turned away in disgust, but my 9-year-old didn’t seem to mind and said the thing looked like a strange flower. Their answers indicated whether or not they were prepared to watch the show right then.
Get your kid ready for scary movies.
We can’t tell how our kids will feel about a scary movie, but we can make it more likely that they will enjoy it.
If your child wants to watch a movie, watch it first or at least know what it’s about so you can decide if it’s too much. If your child has never seen a horror movie, Scrivner and Dr. Dry recommend starting with a movie that isn’t too scary and watching it with your child. This could be a cartoon or drawn movie like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Monsters, Inc. You can even watch the movie in the daytime to make it less scary.
During the movie, tell your child when something scares you and how you handle it. Dr. Dry says, “The parents’ reaction and how they deal with it are so important.” You don’t have to be too emotional, but you don’t have to be tough either. It’s OK for grownups to be terrified during the movies; my kids have seen me cover my eyes or look away during terrifying moments of Harry Potter.
Whether you are watching the movie with your child or not, tell them they can always leave the room or turn it off. Be ready to talk to your kids about the movie afterward to help them figure out what they didn’t understand.
When is it appropriate to introduce a child to scary movies? According to Dr. Dry, red flags include a rise in dreams or night terrors, trouble falling asleep, and a fear of strangers, the dark, or being left alone. This is especially true if your child didn’t act this way before seeing the movie.
Most of the time, this nervousness is temporary and will go away, but it could mean that the child isn’t ready to watch scary movies yet. “Knowing your child and knowing what to say to them are two, ‘Okay, this is too early for you.'” Dr. Dry says, “We can try this again when you’re a little bit older.”
Are there any scary movies that kids shouldn’t watch at all? If a movie still scares you as an adult, it probably shouldn’t be shown to your kids. Keeping this in mind, I won’t show my kids The Exorcist or The Ring. But if they want to watch when they are much older, I might do it with half my eyes closed.
Watching scary movies can help kids become more resilient, but not all of them will be ready at the same time. Think about how easily your child gets scared because every child is different, no matter what age. This will help you decide what amount of scary they can handle, if any.
Also, pay attention to how your child acts after watching scary movies. If they start having dreams or are afraid of the dark, that’s a sign that it was probably too scary for them, so you’ll know for next time.
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