I'm a long time reader and have learned so much from your columns and chats. This is my first letter, I'm hoping you can help us.
My seven year old son doesn't like movies. To be clear, he does like TV, but most of what he watches are 1/2 hour shows on PBS Kids and sometimes science/nature videos. He seems to have a problem with the drama of full-length movies. A perfect example: Curious George the TV show is okay, Curious George the movie is "too scary".
The full length movies he has been able to sit and watch all the way through (Winnie the Pooh, Cars) lack a villain or overwhelming peril or conflict for the characters, but since most movies by nature need that dramatic tension, we have few choices. We try to anticipate a reaction when choosing videos, but sometimes we're not sure what will cause him to shout, "Turn it off! This is too scary!" Even some of those Curious George episodes cause a reaction if George gets in really big trouble.
This doesn't really seem like a big problem, right? The problem is that at his age movies are no longer an avoidable optional activity but are increasingly becoming a part of community events, summer camp, and even school. In addition to his reaction being a potential social problem, it's also creating an issue for the adults in the room who have found themselves having to comfort or distract one upset child in a room full of children who are all supposed to be occupied with a movie.
Do you have any suggestions on helping our son manage his fears?
Thank you so much!
From: Mom with a remote, Braintree, MA
Dear Mom with Remote,
This is a stage, he will outgrow it. In the meantime, your job it to find a way to help him manage it without making him feel embarrassed or ashamed. At home, certainly, he should not be made to feel inadequate because he doesn't want to sit through a movie. No matter how carefully you might pick "family" videos (and what's wrong with "Pooh" or "Cars," anyway? You're like, what, expecting adults to enjoy the same movie a child does?), let him know he can leave the room, stop the video or turn it off. NBD. At the same time, have optional quiet activities for him, like drawing, reading, puzzles. Not only are you modeling respectfulness for his need but also helping him to grow a coping skill: "I can leave the room." But honestly? Back off movies for a while altogether. When you're looking for a family activity, plan a game night.
At the same time, you can help him along in the process by showing him that everyone has unique personal characteristics: "You're a person who loves the color green, dad is a person who loves orange and your sister loves purple." "You're a person who loves to eat pasta but NO red sauce. I'm a person who loves red sauce!" This helps kids to see differences and nuances without passing judgment about them. After sprinkling some of these into daily conversation, throw in one about movies: "You're a person who doesn't like scary movies. Your friend, Henry, loves scary videos." Period. Not good, not bad, just different.
From there, it's not a big leap for him to be able to point those differences out to his friends -- "You're a person who likes scary videos. I'm not." -- and to be able to negotiate around them: "I want to sleep over, but I don't want to watch scary videos." You may be surprised at how empathetic 7-year-old boys can be. BTW, are bad dreams a result of watching? All kids get that.
Meanwhile, is it possible you are reading too much into adults' reactions, anticipating that they might find this a pain when, in fact, they really don't? Is it possible you are embarrassed by his fear or anticipating that it will become a social impediment?
Notice I haven't said anything about helping him to build a stronger muscle for movie-watching. Some kids are more sensitive to others and I'm not aware that movie-watching is critical to any developmental need. Sure, there can be a social component to this. But even when video-watching is a social event, there are ways around it. With the help of a children's librarian, you and your son could make a project of screening videos (perhaps of books he already knows?) so that he has a ready list of what he could watch. Maybe think of it this way: It's his allergy. Luckily, it's one he'll outgrow. Meanwhile, he needs support managing it.
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