“I can’t get it out of my mind.”
I was surprised by how grotesque a statue in a neighbor’s yard is until I realized it’s an early glimpse of Halloween. Adults have fun in October creating decorations, often the scarier the better, in order to delight passersby. Certainly some children are drawn to scary things and find them exciting. Soon horror movies will abound on TV, and older children and some adults may enjoy them.
The fact that children can be excited by frightening images doesn’t diminish the fact that their equilibrium can be disturbed by seeing them. It can be hard for adults to recognize the signs that their child has been negatively affected by a disturbing image, especially before they can put their fear into words.
Young children suddenly become clingy or wake at night after seeing a skeleton or a scary scene in a movie. An eight-year-old who heard about a movie character from a friend had trouble falling asleep for weeks. A young adolescent with special needs who enjoys music videos was horrified by a scene of Billie Eilish when her nose suddenly poured out blood. For a child who is young, sensitive, or neurodiverse, the ripples of frightening scenes can linger. Research shows that some adults remember unsettling movies from their childhood.
What can we do? In the past, adults simply stated, “There’s nothing to be afraid of” and might shame children for being babyish. Yet now we know registering fear isn’t a sign of weakness, but of the body being triggered into high alert, and sometimes those reactions in children aren’t apparent. Our job as adults, in this age of the internet and shocking stories on the news, is to protect children.
We want to communicate understanding when children are afraid—“Many people would be scared if they saw a movie like that”—and give them tools for managing the physiological impact of fear, like taking deep breaths. We can talk about ways we try to get images out of our minds, like thinking about a happy scene, listening to music, or reading an interesting book.
When we talk to children about their fears compassionately, they can learn to be kinder to themselves and as they get older begin to identify situations and images that disturb their well-being. “I don’t like watching horror movies. They make me jittery.”
Positive self-talk can help children handle feelings of anxiety. “I don’t need to be afraid of skeletons.” That doesn’t mean they simply dismiss or repress fear. We want them to develop the ability to monitor their own responses and pay attention when a situation feels disturbing or unsafe. Paying attention to their unique way of reacting to the world is an important part of learning who they are.