My 3 year old daughter is quite sensitive and empathetic, and subsequently finds some of the kids TV shows aimed at her age group too scary, worrying or upsetting to watch. Even televised productions of books she likes such as the Gruffalo can be too scary for her. Anything with elements of peril, evil or where characters get particularly upset will probably be something she doesn't like watching.

This limits her to a few shows which she likes but she does want to try watching other things so sometimes we try and watch a new movie or show together. Very often though she becomes scared or upset and asks to turn it off.

Should we be trying to encourage or persuade her to watch these things, to try and help her with her emotional reaction? Or would it be better to just avoid these shows until she's older and presumably will have developed the ability to cope with these emotions better.

I don't want to scare or upset her necessarily but if there is a way we can help her then I'd be interested to try it.

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    Why do you want your child to watch these TV shows? What does she lose by just not watching them?
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 17:16
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    @Kevin I don't want her to particularly, but SHE wants to watch different things. Also, if it would help her to overcome some sort of emotional developmental hurdle then I would wish to help her do so. I'm happy watching Paw Patrol :)
    – AGB
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 14:24
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    What's the relevance of the word 'empathetic' in the post?
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 15:21
  • @BCLC She empathises strongly with others, so in relation to watching TV she empathises with the predicament of the characters. This can lead to her becoming upset or worried on their behalf.
    – AGB
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 12:34
  • @AGB 1. why don't you say that in the post? 2. Is that really an indication of empathy? Seems like a ludic fallacy here. I mean, that's kinda the role of TV show writers: to make audience empathise with characters. But does your 3 year old actually, well, empathise with people?
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 13:04

6 Answers 6


First of all, let me assure you that I understand your worry. I have been in your situation three years ago and it can be very alarming when your child finds "Ben and Holly" too scary ("The bird stole her wand! Waa-waa-waa! Turn it off now!"), doesn't listen to any kids stories ("Red-riding hood" was considered a horror movie) and doesn't allow any evil characters in a role-play games. It limits a lot their exposure to literature, theater and possible game plots. It seems to slow down their emotional development.

I would like to tell you what we did and how it worked out.

  1. Turn off when she asks. Otherwise she might not trust you when you try to show her something new.

  2. Try different shows. Sometimes the plot would be so interesting that curiosity will beat fear. In our case she started to watch Princess Sofia earlier than she agreed to Luntik (I am not sure you know this one, but it is aimed at age 2-3).

  3. Skip scary parts and then accidentally show some glimpses of them once she is used to the story. This how we watched Tinkerbell.

  4. Ask if it's okay if you watch it yourself and she will play in the other room meanwhile. My daughter would say okay and then peek across the room to find out what's next.

  5. Find an environment where she is exposed to it together with other children. We have a wonderful interactive puppet theater where we watched many traditional fairy tales. She seemed scared but everybody else around were laughing so she decided that this is not that scary after all.

  6. Siblings help a lot. I remember that a major progress happened when her older cousin came to visit for three weeks. She would organize all type of normal children games (with evil witches, dying, resurrection, volcanoes, doctors etc.) My daughter really wanted to join it and was very fast to accept these scary things as norm than she would ever do with me.

I was asking the same question as yours myself and I tried to find answer from other people who worked with my daughter, like preschool and school teachers. There was very little they could say apart from "all children are different, yes, maybe her reaction is strange but she is a normal child". I decided not to think about it as a disorder and our doctor advised against going to a psychologist about this issue (but if you are very worried ask them as well).

Finally, my solution is: don't push her to it but also don't tip-toe around her preferences. I think accepting her "no"s unconditionally is impractical because she will be exposed to these kind of things at school and preschool anyway. From our experience, I can tell you that it gradually fades away, you are not stuck with Peppa Pig and silly chooh-chooh trains forever=). But it also does so in strange speed for different aspects. Funny note, she is six now and she read two first Harry Potters. Voldemort, spiders, forbidden forest were scary, but bearable. However, the moment where Harry was sent to the Headmaster triggered a complete meltdown and she didn't touch the book for two weeks =).

  • I was a bit jarred by this: "Skip scary parts and then accidentally show some glimpses of them once she is used to the story. This how we watched Tinkerbell." At first I thought you were recommending "accidentally" showing glimpses of scary parts, which sounds manipulative. But then I re-read and realized the "accidentally" refers to what actually happened in your case, not necessarily to what you'd recommend, which, I assume, would be intentional and without deception.
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 7:23

I find great importance in fostering a child's sense of personal control. Her nos are no and her yesses are yes - unless there is potential for physical or psychological harm.

I'd suggest taking your daughter's lead regarding what she wants to watch. Offer shows to watch together and if she says yes, then watch it. If no, don't force the issue. When she does get scared, stop watching and talk about it (for the however long she isn't wanting to go do something else).

Ask her what she feels and affirm that how she feels is okay. Ask about what makes her feel that way. Ask how she would help the characters in the show. In essence, guide her through exploring how she feels. Being upset, scared, angry or frustrated are acceptable and expected emotions, but they need extra time and care to explore and process.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 1:39

There were movies that scared me as a child long after they should have because I watched them a little sooner than I was ready and carried a negative association around them. So even when I was old enough to appreciate them, I didn't like them because I remembered they were scary. As I got significantly older, I realized I really liked some of these movies, but I missed out on them for quite a while because of the early trauma they caused. So I would second the advice to not rush your child.

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    Agreed: for that matter there are movies I watched years ago as an adult, typically involving violence, that I wish I had never watched. Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 23:44
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    Ghost busters to this day freaks me out because I watched it too soon(5 or 6). Alien I got to watch as an adult and loved it. I support this answer.
    – Omagasohe
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:00

If a child is forced to deal with situations that are beyond his or her ability to understand, process, respond to, or control—specifically, situations that are accompanied by strong negative feelings, this may be traumatic.

Trauma is bad. You want to avoid that. Exposure to a traumatic or aversive event is now recognized as a vital cause of an entire class of conditions affecting mental well-being1.

Know it is unlikely for your child to be traumatized as long as you are sensitive and mild, not pushy, and do what is suggested in May’s answer—which I recommend as a practical guide, unlike my more theoretical treatment. However, it seems to me valuable for you to understand why approaching such a situation carefully is worthwhile. While it would likely have to be some pretty scary and either severe or oft-repeated negative events to be truly scarring, just know that things can be traumatic2 in surprising ways.

In my opinion children should only be challenged to the point of medium discomfort, that only occasionally, and always with the proper emotional and cognitive support. It is crucial that your child feels he or she has choices—even if ultimately those choices only give the illusion of control. If an event already happened that did exceed a child's ability to deal with, a trusted adult talking it over with the child (without making a big deal of it) is helpful—the goal is to give the child a helpful narrative to assign to the event that explains it at the child's comprehension level and provides the child with awareness of choices3 in the future to deal with that sort of situation. This talking also needs to be in balance as the talking itself can become a charged, implicit narrative that makes the situation more frightening—so in some ways it's important to show more than tell, if possible, while helping the child unknowingly construct/accept a helpful narrative.

Overall, children need to be protected from situations and input beyond their age and maturity level that cause them to start creating maladaptive coping mechanism of any kind—emotional, intellectual, or otherwise. And, consider the very important factor that the definition of maladaptive here is adaptive to the current situation beyond the child's ability to handle, but maladaptive to his or her future adult function as a whole person. Specifically, if the cortex shuts down and the limbic system or "reptile brain" are left in charge4, having that occur with great severity or repeatedly in mild severity5 is a recipe for long-term emotional damage and other problems5 later in life.

As a child over time develops physically, mentally, and emotionally, and becomes more sophisticated, mature, and capable of understanding and exercising good judgment, he or she can tolerate more and more stimulation and more and more exciting/scary/intense situations. So long as the level of these things is within (or just barely outside) the child's competent operating envelope, then he or she will continue to remain confident, capable, adaptive, and functional.

Good modeling of behaviors and attitudes by parents, plus assisting a child to identify, label, feel, and respond to his or her emotions, are both always of critical importance to children for their proper development, whether or not any trauma has occurred. You can research Childhood Emotional Neglect to understand one aspect of this a little more, and to gain an idea of what kinds of intentional interaction with a child will help him or her to develop emotional intelligence in a healthy way and at a normal developmental stage. That emotional intelligence will then allow the child to use his or her own emotions and the emotions of others for positive outcomes instead of negative ones.

In closing, keep in mind that executive function takes until around age 25 6, 7 to finish developing, and it may take up to age 31 for highly gifted people. While executive function development can be accelerated with the right kinds of teaching, you're never going to vastly exceed the physical brain development stage of the child, so it's important to be aware of a child's hard limitations and work wisely within them instead of unwisely ignoring them...


  1. Laura K. Jones, Jenny L. Cureton, Trauma Redefined in the DSM-5: Rationale and Implications for Counseling Practice The Professional Counselor Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, Pages 257–271 doi:10.15241/lkj.4.3.257 (more details and formats)

    Note: This is a great overall explanation of what (adult) PTSD is and how it arises. Through focusing on the differences between previous DSM definitions of trauma, a pretty thorough treatment is accomplished. Note that the adult criteria are distinct from criteria for children.

  2. DSM-V PTSD criteria for children, summarized by verywellmind.co].

    Claim: "... know that things can be traumatic2 in surprising ways."

    The perception of the child rules all other considerations for how traumatic an event is, and PTSD developed as a child seems to be more damaging than that incurred as an adult. While the criteria for PTSD in both children (see above) and adults exclude viewing events on a screen as a cause, this is somewhat controversial1 and doesn't exclude the possibility of the child believing he was really threatened with injury by the experience. Also, full-blown PTSD is not required for there to nonetheless be negative outcomes from repeated overwhelming situations..

  3. Joaquín A. Mora-Merchán, Coping strategies: mediators of long-term effects in victims of bullying? Annuary of Clinical and Health Psychology, 2 (2006) 15-25

    Note: While this article is about bullying, the effect on children of dealing with traumatizing circumstances is the same regardless of whether the source of the trauma is a bully or not.

    On one hand, when we considered the perception of control, the victims with less perception of control on bullying episodes showed higher stress levels. On the other hand, students who considered the conflict more as a challenge than a threat experienced lower levels of stress in adult life. ... [E]ven if the perception of control was imaginary, the stress buffering finally reinforces it. ... The perception of control may be considered an efficient protector in victim populations.

  4. Maia Szalavitz, How Terror Hijacks the Brain TIME Magazine, April 16, 2013

    Claim: "if the cortex shuts down and the limbic system or 'reptile brain' are left in charge":

    When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses. “The normal long pathways through the orbitofrontal cortex, where people evaluate situations in a logical and conscious fashion and [consider] the risks and benefits of different behaviors— that gets short circuited,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at Montefiore/Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. Instead, he says, “You have sensory input right through the sensory [regions] and into the amygdala or limbic system.”

  5. Bessel van der Kolk, Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2000 Mar; 2(1): 7–22.

    Claim: "repeatedly in mild severity":

    Initially described as resulting from a onetime severe traumatic incident, PTSD has now been shown to be triggered by chronic multiple traumas as well.

    Claim: "long-term emotional damage and other problems":

    Traumatic events such as family and social violence, rapes and assaults, disasters, wars, accidents and predatory violence confront people with such horror and threat that it may temporarily or permanently alter their capacity to cope, their biological threat perception, and their concepts of themselves. Traumatized individuals frequently develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder in which the memory of the traumatic event comes to dominate the victims' consciousness, depleting their lives of meaning and pleasure.

  6. Mariam Arain et al., Maturation of the adolescent brain, Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2013; 9: 449–461. Published online 2013 Apr 3. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S39776

    Claim: "executive function takes until around age 25 to finish developing":

    It is well established that the brain undergoes a “rewiring” process that is not complete until approximately 25 years of age. This discovery has enhanced our basic understanding regarding adolescent brain maturation and it has provided support for behaviors experienced in late adolescence and early adulthood. Several investigators consider the age span 10–24 years as adolescence, which can be further divided into substages specific to physical, cognitive, and social–emotional development.

  7. Sylwester R. The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy. Newbury Park CA: Corwin Press; 2007

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    When opinions are presented as scientific fact, citations from reliable sources which provide support are required. Please support this claim: "Specifically, if the cortex shuts down and the limbic system or "reptile brain" are left in charge, having that occur with great severity or repeatedly in mild severity is a recipe for serious long-term damage and disaster." This may not be your only claim needing support. It's important for readers to understand opinion vs. evidence-supported possibilities. Sources are always welcome. Thanks. Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 17:06
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    I agree with you and will be posting references as soon as possible. Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 17:14
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    @anongoodnurse I am fairly certain all that sentence says is that a person repeatedly conditioned to respond with a lack of emotion to certain situations is a bad idea. I don't see any actual scientific claim there besides "it's a bad idea to force people into situations where they have to completely ignore their emotions to feel comfortable". Maybe I am missing something here.
    – user64742
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 1:16
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    @ReadyToLearn - Well done! An appreciative +1 from me. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 1:45
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    @anongoodnurse if I have time I plan to add more! Hopefully it is clear that I’m not completely off base. But in all honesty, May’s answer is of much greater practical use. Though of interest to me is how things I mentioned—the illusion of control, the child having narratives to give alternate meaning to scary events, the importance of not pushing too hard, and the eventual healthy development—all play out in May’s answer. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 5:27

Oftentimes in children's shows something that seems scary and evil in the early/middle is later revealed to be something innocent and good later on.

In such cases, I find it better to encourage (not force) seeing it through to the end, doing my best to make them feel safe and possibly giving up some plot if needed.

That way they can hopefully make it to the "Aha!" moment where they realize it wasn't so scary after all.

The alternative of turning it off in the middle means the rest is left to the imagination, which is almost guaranteed to be a lot scarier than what actually happened.

  • 1
    A pause in the middle for a snack, a reconnection to the real world, and a little encouragement that it's going to be all right can work wonders if your child feels the emotional scares too strongly.
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 9:03

For me, a key point is your daughter didn’t create any of these stories – so she has no agency or control over them, other than to watch or not. In an answer not long ago, May said something very important. To paraphrase, her daughter’s anxieties were lessened after spending some time playing with an older cousin, who organized the kids into acting out different stories. The kids invented their own characters, and then they made creative, spontaneous, intuitive choices about their characters and their actions.

Imagine yourself as a child in such a situation, you’re moving through your house as a certain character, and another kid who’s playing a super scary character comes running around a corner toward you. You might intuitively look fierce, scream. Then just as spontaneously (and unconsciously), you might find a plausible, face-saving rationale within the immediate action – still staying in character – to exit and find safer ground. Then, when you feel strong again, you might initiate your own encounter where you’re the scary one. We can almost always handle our own imaginations, which is why invention is such a good starting point.

The exhilaration of being part of an amazing game with other excited kids -- and then realizing you can change the game, you can look out for yourself in this imaginary world, all that is very powerful. This is one way you learn resilience, grit and emotional control. We tried to help our kids feel confident and comfortable in many different situations, but didn’t demand they progress along a consistent path, in sync with anyone else. It’s an ebb and flow, and sometimes it’s annoying and embarrassing for the parent.

Your daughter will have many decades to watch a scary movie – or any other kind of movie. It’s wonderful that she knows she’s safe sharing her feelings with you. Don’t make those feelings ‘wrong.’ Instead, empower her by letting her set her own pace, and acknowledge and appreciate her innate creativity. Take the opportunity to talk about the characters you’re watching, how they treat each other, the choices they make and how it works out.

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