While watching a sitcom the other night, the topic of whether or not to let kids see disturbing images came up. On the show, the fictional family was settling in to watch Disney’s The Lion King, and the older kids mentioned that they didn’t want to have to fast forward through the part (spoiler alert!) when Simba’s dad dies. The littlest of the kids (maybe 6 or 7 years old) was shattered. He had no idea he died since his parents systematically protected him from seeing it by fast forwarding through that part each and every time the family sat down to watch it.
Obviously the topic is subjective, right? What may be disturbing for one child (watching Bambi lose his mother) might just be a sad fact of life to another. And it’s all dependent on age too. A friend recently let his 3-year-old daughter sit through the opening scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and regrets every minute since it completely freaked her out.
Between the always-on news cycle and social media postings, it’s hard to shelter kids from disturbing images these days. And it’s a parent’s job to help make sense of what they witness, especially anything that might be considered disturbing or frightening.
To me, it’s not a matter of if my child sees disturbing things on TV or in real life. It’s a matter of when. Seeing a child bullied on the playground might be just as disturbing as seeing the faces of those injured and killed in the Brussels’ bombings on TV to little kid.
In a recent guide by Common Sense Media, kids under the age of 7 should be shielded from disturbing images. But since that’s way easier said than done, parents need to make sure their children feel safe. Parents need to be prepared to answer questions that come up from seeing potentially violent images without minimizing or discounting kids’ concerns or fears, which may include, “Could that happen to you? To me?”
Use these exposures (even accidental ones) as teaching moments. The important thing is to keep everything age appropriate. An Amber Alert flashing across the screen, for instance, might spark a conversation about always staying with a trusted adult like Mommy or Daddy.
For older kids, experts say that it’s important to find out what kids know — or think they know — so you can correct bad information (read: playground gossip; kids love to falsify facts to make stories more dramatic).
It’s important to put things into perspective for kids, regardless of age and what they saw — death, abduction, terrorism, aliens, etc. Let them know how rare events are (or that they’re completely in the imagination of the film’s writer). Watch with them, whether it’s the news or a movie that deals with the loss of an animal, friend or parent, and offer comfort and reassurance when you can.
It’s also necessary to focus on any positives in the disturbing image or message. I know that sounds weird, but stay with me on this. I use a quote from the author Alice Morse Earle, “Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.” If my 5-year-old had been in the room when the news anchors talked about the suspicious man trying to lure children in McKinney last month, I would explain to him that there are bad people in this world, yes, but there are also very good people. And then we can discuss differences between right and wrong and how to make smart, safe decisions when it comes to strangers.
If you decide to let your children watch something that might be deemed disturbing and scary, sit with them, ask them about their thoughts and feelings and address the issue in a way that benefits them instead of scaring them. By not shielding kids and fostering an open, age-appropriate dialogue, we’re giving our kids a realistic sense of the world rather than putting them in a bubble.
The harsh reality of the matter is that our children will experience disturbing images and events regardless of how much we attempt to shelter them. The National Association of School Psychologists stresses that it’s important to be honest and factual with kids about what they see and to keep answers direct and simple. Talking helps defuse kids’ fears and worries. And experts say this can help children build a solid foundation for coping with life’s inevitable ups and downs.