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Mom and dad make scary movies even scarier

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

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.

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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.

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.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.