Movie Worries

30 Dec

Maybe you needed some down time, or maybe the children needed to be occupied so that you could get some other things done, so you allowed them to watch a movie. Let’s say you chose Walt Disney’s Snow White, because it is so well-known and you remember it from your own childhood. The kids watch the movie, you have some time to attend to your business, and everything seems fine. But when bedtime rolls around, there is a problem. The image of the old hag who gives Snow White the poisoned apple is stuck in your child’s head, and it will not go away.

What is going on here? This is just a cartoon, after all, and it was made for children. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that movies can overwhelm some children by presenting them with frightening images from which the motion picture rating system provides only imperfect protection. For some children, the possibility presented in the movie — that people can seem one way but turn out to be another — is a very compelling idea. In addition, movies in which a character actually morphs into something else — movies such as Freaky Friday, Spirited Away, Big, and The Incredible Hulk — can produce intense anxiety. Children are often misled by appearances, and believe exactly what they see, even if it is presented in a cartoon format.

Logic cannot help anxious children reason away their fears. Long ago, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget did an experiment in which he presented young children with two glasses filled with equal amounts of water. Preschoolers were easily able to see that the two glasses looked the same. However, when he took one of the glasses and, in front of the children, poured its contents into a shorter but wider glass, the children invariably said that the taller glass had more water and the shorter glass had less. Although they had seen the same amount of water poured into a different shaped glass, they still reasoned on the basis of appearance. In other words, it is easy to fool young children into believing that appearances are real, even if you tell them that something is “imaginary,” or created with special effects. So it is wise to use caution in what you allow your children to see, especially those children who are more than ordinarily anxious.

The potential of movies to leave children with anxious preoccupations, of course, isn’t confined to very young children still in the grip of very magical thinking. Older children, teens and adults can be similarly affected. And with regard to some excessively explicit movies our culture produces, it may be reasonable to ask, “Who wouldn’t be freaked out?” At the same time, there are a group of children whose excessive reactivity to movies that their peers can tolerate and enjoy is a reflection of limitations in their own anxiety management capacity. While just saying “No” to movies that are too much is one perfectly acceptable approach, for some children it may result in them missing out in group activities with their peers. For the latter children, learning to build their “Movie Muscles” may be helpful and also build their capacity to tolerate tension and suspense in other areas of their life. A simple way to build “Movie Muscles” is to start with a movie such as Finding Nemo and with the remote control handy, stop the movie whenever your child is showing any fear or signs of physical tension. Ask your child whether he can notice what is happening in his body and then wait for his body to calm down. Then repeat the scene that was just played until the child is less reactive before proceeding with the rest of the movie. This exercise will help build capacity to tolerate the tension and suspense of movies.

copyright@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

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