Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Young children love thrills, like the excitement of being chased around the room in a game by mum or dad, or the thrill of being pushed high in the air while sitting on a swing. They also like television programmes and videos that have loads of adventure and excitement in them. Even listening to a scary story read by a caring adult can make a six-year-old’s heart race with excitement.
And in most instances, that’s perfectly harmless fun. Problems can arise, however, when the impact of these thrilling – but potentially frightening – experiences becomes too much for a child this age to cope with, when it is too intense.
The chances are, you will very quickly know when your child’s excitement from scary events is getting a little too hard for her to handle because her body language will tell you. To begin with, her smile starts to look a little jaded and her eyes will no longer have that sparkle of enthusiasm. Instead of leaning forward, as if to move closer to the film or story, she starts to lean back. You can see that she is no longer having fun. She eventually starts to cry or complains that she feels unwell. She may even tell you outright “I don’t like this any more.”
Treat her reaction seriously when that happens. There is no point in forcing her to remain if she is distressed and uncomfortable. You may feel embarrassed by her reaction – for instance, she is with a group of her friends and all of them seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves – but resist any temptation to tease her in the hope of encouraging her to persist. Your lack of support could heighten her anxiety.
Related: Coping with nightmares
Use your knowledge of your child, coupled with common sense, to screen out potentially frightening experiences. Make sure, for example, that you don’t leave adult-rated horror movies lying around for her to watch when she wakes up before you during the weekend mornings. She’ll happily begin to watch what you watch because she isn’t able to exercise judgement herself. And if you think an unsuitable programme is about to be screened on television, switch channels despite her protests.
Your child is not going to be psychologically harmed by an occasional scary experience that gets too much for her. But do what you can to avoid a repetition. So, if you discover that reading a particular story unsettles her because of its thrilling or frightening content, leave that genre of story alone for a few months until she is more mature.
Bear in mind that your growing child is emotionally vulnerable, has a vivid imagination that can be triggered quite easily, and has an innate desire to access experiences associated with an older child. The combination of these factors means that she might tell you she wants to see a horror movie or read a scary adventure story even though she is not ready for that emotionally.
The difficulty is that what may seem to you to be a simple story about, say, a boy who gets lost in the woods, can be transformed into a horror story in your child’s highly-active imaginative mind.
Take nothing for granted. Monitor her reactions closely and be ready to halt proceedings if she shows signs that it is all getting too much. If she does show that she is frightened, stop the activity, give her a cuddle of reassurance and then turn her attention to a more-appropriate distraction, such as a game or toy. You’ll find that she quickly regains her composure because of your sensitive response.
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