Stephen McNeice
Stephen McNeice

10.53 31 Jul 2021


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What can a parent do to help if their young child has inadvertently seen an upsetting horror movie during a sleepover at a friend's house?

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist specialising in child & adult psychotherapy, joined Moncrieff to answer listeners' parenting questions.

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Parenting: 'My eight-year-old is traumatised after seeing a scary movie... what can I do to help?'

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The problem

“My eight-year-old had her first sleepover recently at a friend’s house. When I collected her the next morning I could tell she wasn’t herself. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me she and her friend had watched a scary movie. Her friend has a TV in her room, and they had streamed a movie.

"I was astonished that a child as young as eight had her own TV and a login for a streaming service. If I had known they were watching unsuitable films without parental supervision, I would not have allowed her to stay overnight.

"My daughter says she can’t stop thinking about some of the images she saw, including a depiction of a murder. I feel she’s been traumatised by what she saw, and I don’t know what to do to help her."

Joanna's advice

“She has seen the movie - you can’t unsee it for her. You were very attuned - you said something’s clearly off, you asked her and she told you. You found out straight away. Now it’s what you do with it.

"I’ve come across this a few times in the clinic. Sometimes it’s kids who inadvertently been shown a horror movie or stumbled across something on YouTube, but it can really unsettle them.

"You can take the ‘director’s technique’. You can say to her ‘imagine you were the director of that scary movie. What was the scariest bit? We’re going to yell cut and delete that from the movie. What would you put in instead that would change the way that movie went?’

"Have her draw the new scene, talk about it in as much detail as possible, and how it would change the end of the movie and why it would be better. Stick up that new positive picture, or put it somewhere she can just see it when she wants to. It can give her some semblance of control or power over what she’s holding in her mind.

"I would also do a lot of nurture play, because it will take her out of her head… and bring her down into her body. Use it as a way of releasing some of that tension and anxiety.

"I would also include more positive movie experiences - get the duvet or blanket or popcorn and watch nice movies together. I would also consider introducing what I would call mild or gentle scares, so you increase her capacity to master fear. There are lots of kid’s movies that have some scary but not traumatic material. I’m thinking The BFG… there are scary moments, but ultimately it all works out. The WitchesCoralineReturn to Oz… even Ghostbusters, Gremlins or The Neverending Story. They have very clear ‘uh-oh’ moments, but ultimately the resolution is what dominates those films.

"Opening with that might not be the best thing right now… ease in with some nice gentle movies first.

"You might also want to flag this with the other parent - they might not be aware their own child has done this. Be respectful and careful about how you say this. You'll know quick enough by their reaction whether they think it's an issue or not."

Main image: File photo. Image by Vidmir Raic from Pixabay

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