If you love the horror movie genre, you might not hesitate to watch a scary film with your toddler around, thinking that he's too young to understand what's happening. Although toddlers might not understand exactly what's happening in scary movies, they can pick up bits and pieces that can stay in their mind for a long time -- years, in some cases. Toddlers tend to have enough of fears of ordinary objects -- like the bathroom drain. Don't add to their fear list by letting them watch scary movies.
The immediate effects of scary movies don't come only from the scenes on the screen, which your toddler might not understand. The scary music, the sense of fear he picks up from other people watching the movie -- including you -- all add to his sense of unease and disturbance. The immediate effects for him could be an increase in pulse rate as he shown sign of anxiety or an increase in aggressive behavior, according to a Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital study presented at the 2006 meeting of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Other reactions could include crying or screaming, trembling or shaking, clinging to you or a stomachache, reports a joint study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin.
Scary movies can interfere with your toddler's sleep in two ways. He might have difficulty going to sleep because the disturbing scenes in the movie are still in his head. He might talk about what he saw repeatedly, trying to work out exactly what he saw and what it might mean for him. Once he goes to sleep, the events he watched can work their way into his dreams, causing nightmares that wake him and make it difficult for him -- and you -- to go back to sleep.
The effects of watching scary movies at a young age can stay with your toddler a very long time -- into adulthood, in some cases, according to a 1999 University of Michigan and Wisconsin study. In a study of 150 college students, researchers found that 90 percent remembered being frightened by a movie or television show in childhood or adolescence, and over 26 percent still experienced residual anxiety over it.
Dealing With the Effects
If your toddler has managed to creep down the steps in the evening while you're watching the latest zombie movie or watched something scary at someone's else's house, you can diffuse the effects of what he saw in several ways. Simply telling your child that what he saw isn't real might not be enough, since young children can't distinguish between what's real and what's not. Let him talk about his fears, but reassure him that the things he saw won't happen to him. Read children's books that deal with children's fears, such as Mercer Mayer's "Thereʼs a Nightmare in My Closet." If he's afraid of the dark, get him a night light.