It's nearly Halloween, the scariest time of the year, and the movies range from silly to terrifying. There's no doubt your kids will be exposed to a frightening film, even something as innocent as "Pooh's Halloween Heffalump Movie."
What you find ridiculous could scare your kids and what your kids are begging to see might leave you shaking. Even so, there's no doubt that every year the holiday's films aspire to new heights of terror.
"What was scary last week isn't scary now," says Nell Minow, nationally recognized as the Movie Mom and whose movie reviews appear in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Halloween is exciting, but it's a scary time. Parents need to be hypersensitive."
Fantasy vs. reality. Does your child understand the difference? Younger children in particular aren't discriminating. The thought that Dora isn't real might come as a surprise, so don't expect your child to understand that the Gobloon in "Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie" is also imaginary.
"Kids are usually able to differentiate between reality and fantasy," says Dr. Jonathan Pochyly, a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "But some kids might take it as real."
If your child does not know the difference, reiterate that the villains do not exist.
Read reviews. If you are content with taking a shortcut, find a movie reviewer whose views parallel yours. Find reviews in local papers, Web sites, magazines and even your church bulletin. Read reviews of movies you have both seen to discover your compatibility. It's not foolproof, but may come in handy in a pinch.
View it first. Your kids cannot argue that you do not understand if you have seen the movie. There is no substitute for first-hand information. If the movie seems overtly gratuitous, you might be right.
"It is true that what it takes to shock kids can be on the excessive side because they have seen so much already," Pochyly says.
Home viewing instead of theater. With the plethora of parties and events in October, finding the time to get to the theater remains difficult, so instead of viewing the latest fright fest, rent a film from the past. Watching a movie in the comfort of your own home, even if you turn the lights off, makes the experience less intense.
Minow, a Chicago native and mom of two, recommends children under 5 steer clear of the theater anyway. Unpredictable reactions might hamper the enjoyment of everyone at the show and unexpected scary scenes may lead you to wish you had stayed home.
Coping strategies. If you've decided your child is ready to watch a scary film, come up with management techniques before hitting the play button. Offer different options such as letting your young ones sit in your lap, turning on the lights or even turning off the movie if the fear is overwhelming. Some kids may also benefit from knowing the happy ending, even if they are too scared to view more.
"Encourage your child to be a controlled consumer," Pochyly says. "Help them to know what stirs up their anxiety."
Beware of MPAA ratings. "The MPAA ratings are useless," Minow says. "They are misleading, giving parents a sense that they know what to expect in the movies but too often leading to unpleasant surprises."
The Motion Picture Association of America chooses the rating for each film released, but the board, made up of parents, combines votes to determine the rating. Determine which elements are important to you and research films accordingly. The ratings can be useful, but do not let them decide for you.
Know your child. Pay attention to the kinds of movies to which your kids gravitate. Do they even seem to like scary films or does the interest only surface around Halloween? How do your kids react during commercials for horror films? Are they excited or nervous? Is the movie they want to see bloody, intense, heart-pounding or silly?
Evaluate all the circumstances before making a decision. What is OK for one child may not be OK for another.
Not for everyone Horror films excite and entertain. They provide a rush of adrenaline and an escape from everyday life, but some kids just can't handle them. No one should force your kids to watch a horror film, even at a party. If your child is seriously afraid or if you have witnessed their anxiety in the past, put a stop to the viewing.
If they react with nervousness that doesn't disappear or have many recurring nightmares, don't hesitate to contact your pediatrician.
Stand your ground. If you feel a horror flick is inappropriate for your child, don't relent on your decision no matter how much he begs. In this, as many other occasions, your kids will probably plead, negotiate and whine to get their way. You are the parent and ultimately have the final verdict.