Saturday, December 9, 2023

Children and scary stories: What’s right, what’s wrong? This can help

Cover illustration from Alvin Schwartz’s classic trilogy "Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark." (Courtesy image)
Cover illustration from Alvin Schwartz’s classic trilogy “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark.” (Courtesy image)

October is in full swing, and while it brings its share of candy and costumes every year, it also brings to bear a scary assortment of fiction; or, is that an assortment of scary fiction? Maybe it’s both.

At this time of year, horror stories abound, from books to television, from DVDs to streaming. For parents (some of whom may be horror fans), there is an abundance of choices that all start with the question: What is age appropriate? If you are one of those parents toiling through too many options, you are not on your own. But, when and how to introduce your children to scary stories is actually a multi-factor process.

“The best resources are librarians,” said Sandy Towers, youth services director at the Williamsburg Regional Library. “We’ve got quite a list of books in our arsenal we can share with parents. And parents can share their concerns. What’s scary to one kid is not scary to another, so librarians can help choose the right fit for each kid.”

The first issue is deciding when and what is OK for your child, but more important, according to University of North Carolina at Wilmington Professor and Developmental Psychologist Simone Nguyen, is how you handle the overall experience for your child.

Exposing your children to scary stories

“There is some discussion about whether it’s appropriate for preschool-aged kids to be exposed to scary content, whether that’s stories or movies. And, the general consensus among researchers, at least within the developmental psychology realm, is that there is some value to exposure — within reason,” Nguyen said. “These movies and stories might expose children to important life lessons, may help deal with negative emotions, including fear, anger envy, jealousy, etc.”

Most of that modern research is being led by University of Texas Professor Dr. Jacqueline Woolley, who has authored or co-authored numerous papers on the cognitive development of children.

“She’s done much of the work that informs the suggestions that I am sharing,” Nguyen said. “It’s good to know that suggestions about what’s appropriate or inappropriate for young kids is empirically based. It’s not on a whim, but rather, there’s research suggesting what’s … appropriate or inappropriate for children.”

Click here to see a full list of recommended picks from the Williamsburg Regional Library. 

Among Woolley’s academic papers is, “Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction,” which she co-wrote with Dr. Tanya Sharon, of Emory University.

In the abstract, professors Woolley and Sharon discuss their work on expanding earlier research on children’s cognitive development. When it comes to fantasy versus reality, children start to make certain distinctions between real life and make believe between ages 3 and 5, according to the study.

“Specifically, research has shown that young children have clear ideas about the kinds of things real entities can and cannot do,” the abstract states.

Most parents may not want to read a psychological research paper to figure out what movie is OK for their child; and you don’t have to. What it means, Nguyen noted, is that children as young as five can be exposed to scary stories and not be negatively affected.

“There’s a large body of research that suggest between the ages of 3 and 5 — so preschool, early elementary school/kindergarten, children are beginning to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality,” Nguyen said. “Children are highly skeptical at this age. They can begin to tell the difference between real versus imagine entities, like monsters as fantastical versus human, which is real.

“They can also tell the difference … between real events versus impossible events, like things that defy laws of gravity,” she said. “Children … are pretty good at making this distinction.  But, even though they  … can make this distinction, that doesn’t mean that they are not fearful.”

What’s important for parents is knowing your child. What’s even more important, she said, is being there when they need you.

“Always reassuring the child that the parent is there for protection is important,” Nguyen said. “I would never suggest exposing a child to scary content without a parent being available to provide support and to answer questions. A parent (being) available to answer questions or provide explanation for what the child is hearing or seeing, that can be really invaluable.”

That means surrendering control over the experience to the child. That means, if a child is overwhelmed, closing the book or turning off the TV.

“As long as they’re in control, I think that’s quite helpful,” Nguyen said. “Even though kids can tell the difference between fantasy and reality between the ages of 3 and 5, it’s important to still be sensitive to each individual child and to give them the opportunity to stop a story reading session or to stop a movie.”

Choosing appropriate content

Given that each child is different, and that parents need to know their child’s threshold, Nguyen declined to give specific content advice.

“It just depends upon the child and the values of the family, too,” she said.

But, if it’s your child’s first scary story, Nguyen said books give children more control than television and movies.

“Reading is probably one of the safer ways (to introduce a child to horror), largely because it’s not as graphic,” she said. “So, usually, even scary stories or fairy tales don’t necessarily have graphic details depicted between the pages. It’s just the story line that the child may be hearing… so there’s less there to imagine. Also, since the book is tangible, the child can have it in their hands, or in their parents hands and stop the reading by just closing up the book, which allows the child to fell as if they are in control of the storybook reading session, particularly if it is overwhelming.”

But, when it comes to the content between the covers of those books, or the images on those screens, parents have help, too. On this, Nguyen does have a favored resource.

“There are so many good resources out there … it  can be difficult parents caregivers, teachers select reliable sources of information. is, hands down, such an important tool and resource … when making selections,” she said. “I’m not sure many people know about it.”

The website is dedicated to helping parents choose age appropriate content all year long. The site has sections for all ages, from preschoolers to tweens and teens. And, it goes beyond niche topics and fiction reviews, delving into other parenting issues. They include tips for dealing with internet bullies and trolls, homework, body image and smartphone safety, among others.

But, the site is topical, too, and can help parents when it comes to scary stories.  When interviewed at the end of September, Nguyen pointed out a section for “Best Ghost Stories for Kids and Teens.” As of Oct. 17, topics under the site’s “trending videos” tab included “7 Classic Scary Movies” and “How to Pick the Right Scary Movie for Kids of Every Age.”

“It’s a resource for parents who are interested in selecting media that is age appropriate,” Nguyen said. “If you were to visit their website, they actually provide independent reviews for books, movies shows (for) all ages.

“I would suggest that parents take to the time to wander through,” Nguyen said. “They cover all kinds of media, from stories to movies. That would be my best suggestion for parents.”

But, even with a good review in hand, introducing children to scary ideas comes down to knowing your child, and making sure they know you are there when they need you, Nguyen noted.

“The bottom line, quite honestly, is making sure that your child always feels safe, comfortable and supported,” she said. “That’s sort of one of the cool things about books. Where a parent is reading a scary story to a child, a child can actually, if they become overwhelmed with negative emotion, they can actually ask their parent or they can actually just stop the reading. They can just close the book and then the story ends.”

Adrienne Berard contributed reporting. 

This article was published in partnership with WYDaily’s sister publication, Port City Daily.  

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