How to know if a movie is too scary for your child

Story by Stacie Gaetz


Photos by iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many changes in our day-to-day lives.

If screens were prevalent in our homes before, they have become even more widely used as they transformed from mostly forms of entertainment to our only connection with the world outside our home, our lifeline to loved ones, our work hubs and school for our children.

Our kids are a generation that have screens of many different forms including TVs, computers, tablets and phones at their disposal at all times.

It has never been easier to access entertainment in any form from TV shows, to movies, to video games and it can be difficult to know what your kids are watching.

Even if you can keep up with your child’s electronic use and monitor it regularly, do you know exactly what they should and should not be watching for their age and personalities?

What is too scary for a five-year-old? What about your middle schooler? You may think that your teenager can handle more, but should they be watching that zombie movie?

We are here to help with expert advice from Dr. Soraya Lakhani, registered psychologist and director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology.


Young children (5-10)

Lakhani said the most important part of determining what is appropriate for your child to watch is to know their personal tolerances and thresholds for fear.

“For parents, having that insight into their children’s preferences and personalities is perhaps the most critical part of making these determinations,” she said.

“That said, starting out with animated movies involving a clear and obvious cartoon villain (who is ultimately defeated) is usually wise, and helps to reinforce the boundary between ‘real’ and ‘pretend.’”

Airdrie resident Kathy Hunter agreed. She has two girls with very different preferences when it comes to movies.

“(My oldest) has seen more (scary movies) than I have and she’s only 12,” she says.

“They don’t bother her at all. Our other daughter is nine and she is very sensitive. She hates anything scary, so we won’t let her watch anything without either watching it first or really reviewing it before.”

Parents can best navigate when they preview the show or movie and compare that to what they know about their children’s traits specifically. There are also many valuable online resources where movies are reviewed and can give parents further information into what may or may not work for their kids.


What to do if they are scared

If your child is frightened and calls out for you during a movie, there are a number of things you can do to calm them, the most important of which is to tell them they don’t have to keep watching.

“Provide them with reassurance and the opportunity to opt out,” said Lakhani.

“Make sure they know that they can turn off the movie, cover their eyes, or leave the room at any point.”

It’s important to help kids understand that movies are the product of other people’s imaginations – a group of people in a room who came up with an idea and a set of drawings or costumes to bring a movie to life.

Simple gestures of comfort such as a glass of water, a cuddle, an honest conversation during which fears are acknowledged or discussed, or even employing a distraction technique, such as playing a fun game or going for a walk, can be helpful, added Lakhani.

“Parents should acknowledge their children’s fears, ask questions, empathize with the fact that they saw something scary, and answer their children’s questions,” she said.

“This helps reinforce to kids that they can talk about their fears and it creates an open channel of communication with parents.”

According to Lakhani, kids under the age of seven or eight have the ability to start to differentiate between what is real and what is fiction, but they can still be emotional or afraid after watching a scary movie.


How do you know if your child has been scared by a movie but didn’t tell you?

Lakhani said anxieties from age-appropriate scary movies might present as difficulties:

  • falling asleep,
  • going to the bathroom alone,
  • being alone on a given floor of the house,
  • frequently wanting to know where a parent is in the house, and
  • fears of the dark


Older youth (11-18)

Lakhani’s advice for parents of older children is to reinforce to their kids that it is OK not to enjoy thrillers/horror movies and to decline watching them.

“Watching certain scary movies can be perceived as a ‘badge of honour’ and often tweens and teens will feel pressured into watching movies they just don’t want to watch,” she said.

However, as kids get older, it’s easier to have reasoned conversations with them about appropriate and inappropriate viewing. You can say to your middle-schooler, ‘I think this movie might be a little bit intense for you right now’ and explain why you feel that way.

You can talk to them about why they want to watch a particular movie and come up with alternatives.

With older kids, you can give movies a shot if you’re on the fence and watch them together. Check in with them at intervals and make sure they feel comfortable.

“This is an important part of guiding kids to independently understand their own boundaries and comfort zones,” said Lakhani.


Alberta Movie Ratings: What do they mean?

Dr. Soraya Lakhani, registered psychologist and director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology, says these guidelines can be helpful and offer a place to start, but they aren’t going to work for every child and every family. Parents know their children better than anyone else and should use their knowledge of their child’s personality, preview a movie and read reviews to determine what is appropriate for their child.

G – General, suitable for viewing by all ages.

PG – Parental guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children.

14A – Suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age or older. Persons under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain violence, coarse language, and/or sexually suggestive scenes.

18A – Suitable for viewing by persons 18 years of age or older. Persons under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity and/or horror.

R – Admittance restricted to persons 18 years of age or older. Content not suitable for minors. Contains frequent sexual activity, brutal/graphic violence, intense horror and/or other disturbing content.

Adult – Admittance restricted to persons 18 years of age or older. Content not suitable for minors. Contains predominantly sexually explicit activity.