What's Too Scary for My Kids?
Practical Advice from Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laurel Basbas
Fright entertainment is big money in American culture, and why not? The fun of a “safely scary” experience brings a unique kind of memory-making thrill and gets the adrenaline pumping like no other event. That appeal makes America’s Halloween mentality a hot-seller all year long. Hey, everyone loves a good scare—especially children.
But how can you tell what’s too scary for your kids?
In this PopFam exclusive interview, clinical psychologist, Dr. Laurel Basbas, offers a few answers to that question.
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What’s your perspective on “harmless fright entertainment” for kids 12 and under?
In my view, there is no harmless horror. Horror, fright, scary movies—they all depend on igniting the ANS (autonomic nervous system) so that the child (or person) reacts with an automatic adrenaline surge. Unfortunately the horror industry banks on the fact that terror is exciting (literally the ANS goes into an excited state). They bank on creating “adrenaline junkies” (people and children that love the high of the excited ANS).
Allowing kids to think of the “fright response” as fun, without educating them as to its effects, and the inherent dangers, can leave them vulnerable to pursuing the adrenaline rush through whatever means they can find.
Having said that, children will seek a scary story or experience to master anxiety. Facing fears in small manageable doses can be of benefit, allowing the child to learn that he or she can overcome anxieties. In small, short doses, a child faces fears and realizes he can survive the scary moment or experience.
Why do kids crave fright entertainment?
It’s “cool” to like what their peers like. They [also] crave the adrenal rush. Another reason kids crave fright is the need to master anxiety.
As I mentioned earlier, facing fears in small, manageable doses, is helpful. To hear a scary story, or see a scary show and survive does help the child. She feels, “I am OK, I can live through a fearful experience.”
What’s too scary for my kids?
It takes a discerning parent to really read their child correctly. Some children scare easily while others seem to thrive on it. Err in the direction of not frightening kids beyond a friendly “Boo!” or some other fright that is quick and easily recovered from.
Kids usually do not have the discernment to know what really scares them, and they may not want to admit they are afraid. No shows that scare either parent’s “inner child” can be a good gauge. [But] scary rides can be fun. They stimulate adrenaline but don’t prolong the fear. They too can aid with the mastery over anxiety.
Scary products aren’t going away anytime soon. What’s the best way for parents to respond to kid-centric fright media?
For the kids that feel frightened by [fright media], teach the younger ones the difference between what is pretend and what is real. Reassure them that the witches, monsters, wolves, ghosts, etc. are pretend and will not become alive to harm them. Pray with them, reading Scriptures that promise protection from evil. Psalm 91 is always encouraging, and can provide wonderful discussion about God’s care.
Teach older kids the difference between excitement and fear. Both are a similar physiological response (the stimulation of the ANS), but excitement can be a positive response, while fear is often a negative one.
Fear for fear’s sake is unhealthy. Yet fear can be used for a constructive purpose. King David must have felt some fear facing Goliath, but he channeled it purposefully and constructively to serve God...Teach God’s purposes for our emotions; that they have value, purpose and intent. They are not to be cheapened and manufactured to provide a costly thrill.
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