Video: Do parents worsen childhood fears?

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    >>> type 2 diabetes .

    >>> a wonderful movie if you haven't seen it yet. the children's movie "where the wild things are" has been the box office king this past weekend. scaring up nearly $33 million in ticket sales. but was it too wild for some children, despite its pg rating? and did parents make it even scarier? check out this study from finland on children and television. of more than 300 5 and 6-year-olds surveyed 75% said tv scared them. 40% said it gave them nightmares. factor in parents and watch what happened. if children talk to mom and dad about the shows they're three times more likely to be frightened. if they watched them with parents, four times as scared. in today's rounds, when kids get scared. joining me in the studio, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and nyu. and from washington, d.c., director of the early education initiative at the new america foundation and author of "into the minds of babes. how screen time affects children from birth to age 5." i'm not sure where to start. there would be no grim fairy tales if there weren't a chance to scare kids. are we making too big a deal out of this or is there a cumulative effect of kids watching scary stuff.

    >> there definitely is. not all children are created equal in terms of their ability to emotionally process emotionally charged content. it's really important for parents to really be in touch with their particular child and the child 's needs. looking for signs and symptoms. is your child having difficulty sleeping at night, not want to separate from you, having nightmares? be in tune to your child 's particular needs. not saying other kids in my child 's class can watch the movie so why can't my kid?

    >> it's very funny. i thought back to my own children. i have a 21-year-old who still thinks e.t. was the most frightening movie she'd ever seen and to this day can't look at a clip of it. there is a lot of truth to that, isn't there? knowing each individual child beyond the ratings that we see for television and movies?

    >> absolutely. i talk a lot in my book about the three cs. content, context and knowing your child . i think it really pushes parents to look into the context. how it's going to appear, especially to kids under the age of 5. how much the movie theater may have an impact. the darkness. sitting with stranger. know your own child . understand, some of them are really not at all -- have no calms w qualms with this. others could be really frightened.

    >> if e.t. scares your kids like mine you know all bets are off. lisa, thank you so much. good to see you again. appreciate it very well.

By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/21/2009 1:44:46 PM ET 2009-10-21T17:44:46

Parents have been told over and over not to let kids watch TV alone. But now a new study shows that advice can backfire: Researchers found that children who watched television with their folks were almost four times as likely to be frightened by scary programs as those who viewed alone.

As the season of ghouls and gore (and horror flicks on cable) begins — and as some parents worry the new film “Where the Wild Things Are” may be too intense for their youngsters — this new study highlights the confusion many parents experience as they try to ease kids’ fears.

The findings were perplexing even to the authors of the study. They had expected to prove that parents had a comforting effect on their kids, according to the report in the upcoming issue of the journal Child: Care, Health and Development.  Instead they found that parents’ attempts to offer solace to scared kids may just make matters worse. 

The researchers, led by Dr. E. Juulia Paavonen of Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare, asked the parents of more than 300 5- and 6-year-old children detailed questions about the kinds of programs their kids watched, how often the children viewed programs alone or with a parent, and how often the children were frightened after watching their usual TV shows.

Some of the study’s results could have been predicted: almost three-fourths of the children had been scared by TV programs, with more than 40 percent suffering from nightmares associated with TV viewing.

What did startle the researchers was the impact that parents watching and discussing the shows had on kids. Kids were more than three times as likely to be frightened if they talked about scary programs with their parents. And they were four times as likely to be frightened if their parents watched TV with them.

The researchers suggest that well-intentioned parents might be inadvertently turning up the volume on fear. That can happen simply because children are watching their parents’ reactions.

Uh-oh, mom flinched
Peggy Loper remembers watching TV with her mom as a child. “I’d always want her to be there if there was something scary on,” says the 48-year-old student from Quinton, N.J. “Then I’d see her flinch and get even more frightened.”

While the new study’s findings are counterintuitive, they’re not necessarily surprising, says Golda Ginsburg, an associate professor and director of research in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. They show that parents need learn better ways to help kids get over fears.

In studies where researchers have videotaped parents talking to kids about fears, it was clear that parents often make things worse — sometimes just because they want so badly to make their kids feel better, Ginsburg explains.

For example, she adds, when a child who’s been sleeping alone wakes up frightened in the middle of the night and comes to the parents’ bedroom crying, the  temptation is to just comfort the child and maybe even to let him sleep in the parents’ bed.

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But by hugging and cuddling the child, the parent positively reinforces the child’s anxieties — and makes it less likely the child will get over the fears and be able to sleep alone. What you want to reward is bravery, Ginsburg says. And that might mean giving the child a reward that depends on how many nights he sleeps alone without getting up in the middle of the night.

That type of scenario sounds familiar to Kathy Jackson, a 50-year-old marketing analyst from San Jose, Calif. Jackson remembers when her middle-school-age daughter refused to take showers unless mom was there to watch and protect her from anything and everything scary.

“Apparently she saw a scary movie where something happened to a girl in the shower and after that she didn’t want to shower unless I was nearby,” says Jackson. “Sometimes she’d be late for school because I was busy and couldn’t be there for her shower.”

Jackson’s initial response was to reassure her daughter and hang close to the bathroom during showers. “I felt bad for her,” she says. “But I was just reinforcing her fears.”

Eventually Jackson stopped hovering and told her daughter she’d have to learn to shower alone — and she did.

Focusing on fears
Parents can also make their children more fearful by focusing too much on whatever was scary, says Patrick Tolan, a professor and director for the Center for Positive Youth Development at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That might be part of the explanation for what was seen in the new study, he says.

Kids might have missed certain things in a TV program if the parents weren’t there to point them out, Tolan explains, adding that kids sometimes do better if you simply distract them from what scares them.

And it isn’t just limited to what you do or say, says Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. Kids easily pick up on mom’s and dad’s emotions. The human brain is wired up with “mirror neurons,” Kazdin explains. These nerve cells allow you to feel what someone else is feeling without a word being uttered. “So when the parent is watching something scary on TV and is frightened by it, the child models that,” Kazdin says.

And while too much nurture can reinforce fearful behavior — the opposite approach can be just as negative. Joking or dismissing a child’s fears doesn’t help, Ginsburg says. You need to reassure them and help them to be brave.

Bryndis Lisser has seen the tough love approach backfire. Lisser remembers when she was 11 years old and her dad tried to get her over her fear of sharks. “My little brother and I had been watching ‘Shark Week,’  and we were freaking out and didn’t want to go in the water,” says the 16-year-old high school student from Los Gatos, Calif. “My dad said, ‘Don’t worry, the sharks won’t take more than one bite. You’re too stringy.’ That didn’t help at all. We just didn’t go in the water for the whole week.”

Lisser thinks she’d have been less scared if her dad had simply told her that shark attacks rarely happen. “He was trying to make a joke,” she says. “We honestly were just too scared to joke.”

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