Dealing with death in family-friendly films

Dealing with death in family-friendly films


NEW YORK • This summer, many parents are already humming Hakuna Matata as they anticipate taking their children to see the new version of Disney’s The Lion King.

They know that the Lion King falls to his death, murdered by his brother. Still, when watching the movie with their children, they may worry about their reaction to little Simba trying to cuddle with his dead father’s body.

Death is a weirdly ubiquitous feature of kids’ movies. A study of the top box-office films from 1937 to 2014 concluded that violent death is more likely in children’s movies than those targeting adults.

Children’s animated releases, “rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem”, reported developmental psychologists in charge of the study.

But they also affirm what many know. All that death is there for a reason and, with guidance from parents, it can be a positive thing.

“Movies can be a friendly way of introducing children to some difficult concepts and an ageappropriate way of normalising an experience they may have already had,” said Ms Kristy Labardee, a marriage and family therapist.

For example, young viewers can grieve alongside Simba and realise, along with him, that his father’s sudden death is not his fault.

That is not to say parents should throw caution to the wind. As pressure mounts to broaden the audience base for big-screen releases, some family films are depicting more intense situations.

Movies can be a friendly way of introducing children to some difficult concepts and an age-appropriate way of normalising an experience they may have already had.


Children’s movies have evolved from an off-screen shooting of Bambi’s mother in the 1942 classic to the massacre of mother and siblings that starts Finding Nemo (2003).

Guy Ritchie, a poster child of 1990s indie bloodshed, helmed the recent live-action remake of Aladdin, which includes a scene in which Jafar tortures Jasmine’s father.

“Children can’t tolerate fear as well as adults because the area of the brain that calms emotions and puts things into perspective isn’t fully developed until later in life,” said paediatric psychologist Mona Delahooke. “So we must ask ourselves, for whose benefit is the intense content? The adult buying the ticket or the child’s?

“Watching a movie should be an enriching experience for a child, and not a stress-inducing one.”

So how can parents make good choices about which movies to see?

It is important to look beyond the ratings. Family therapist Noha Alshugairi said ratings do not reflect the values of all families, nor are they decided in consultation with mental health experts.

She added: “It falls to each family to determine its own guidelines.”

Part of what can help parents make the call for a child, said Ms Labardee, is considering the losses he has experienced as well as any sensitivities to particular themes.

Once they have made the choice, parents can prepare kids for what they are about to see. Kids generally do not mind spoilers, as evidenced by their fondness for endlessly re-watching movies.

Previewing key story elements can help them better handle challenging themes in the more intense environment of a movie theatre.

The physiological experience of threat can be overwhelming for some.

Ms Alshugairi said it is important not to dismiss those reactions (“But it’s just a movie”) or over-react (“You poor thing”). Instead, help children learn to handle their reactions by helping them to identify what they are feeling.

“Ask open-ended questions without judgment, such as: ‘Wow, that was quite a movie. What did you think of it?'” Ms Delahooke said.

Given that parents cannot always predict what scenes will be in the movie, or how their child will react, it is good to equip children of all ages with a plan for how to cope if something is too much.

“Setting up a small signal with the child ahead of time – like squeezing his hand twice – may be helpful to remind him that it’s pretend, that he’s safe, and that you’re there with him,” family expert Tina Payne Bryson said.


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