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Movies and the highly sensitive child

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 
My DH took our Dd(4.5) to see Polar Express this weekend. She became very upset during parts of the movie - crying loudly in a way that DH found embarrassing and felt was disruptive to everyone else watching. He now feels like we need to 'fix' this - desensitize her by having her watch more mainstream movies or something.

I first of all don't understand why a preschooler needs to be watching movies. Secondly, being a highly sensitive person myself I find his attitude that we could - let alone should - 'fix this' offensive.

I think I am mostly venting and I don't know where else to go to get this off my chest. Also wondering if anyone could recommend informational resources about highly sensitive children. He won't read a whole book though.
post #2 of 15
Hmm... my DD reacts the same way at movies. She has a lot of anxiety about new situations and sometimes the intensity of the lights and sound are enough to put her on edge. We almost had to leave at the last film I took her to because the previews were so loud, she got freaked. I took her out into the lobby until they were over, and then she was fine.
I don't know that any preschooler should be expected to sit through a full length, big screen movie like a perfect angel. Even the kids that age who are enjoying the show are usually talking loudly and squirming a lot. It could be DH has forgotten what it was like to be so small you are practically being swallowed by the movie seat, and kids movie or no, seeing something 10x actual size in a dark theater is scary for some kids. I don't think the whole "immersion therapy" tactic would be especially helpful or warranted.
We actually have a second-run theater in town that offers "sensory showings" once a week for kids with sensitivities. I haven't been to one yet, bit after the last incident, I may. It may be worth checking to see if the theaters in your area offer anything like that, or would be willing to try.
post #3 of 15
Thread Starter 
It's actually the content rather than the setting that is upsetting to her.  This is nothing new to us - she has always gotten very upset about anything sad, scary, anxiety provoking in movies.  She watched Alice in Wonderland for example (at home - on the TV) and started worrying as soon as Alice went down the Rabbit Hole about how she was going to get back to her family.  Even Thomas the Train movies make her worried and upset.  On the other hand she has been attending "The Nutcracker" performance live since before she was 2 and has never had any difficulty sitting through that.  (Though she did cry during the mouse scene the first time she saw it).  I think this instance just upset DH because it was so public and therefore so disruptive/embarassing.  And none of the other children present had a similar reaction. 

Thinking about it some more - she did mention how big the screen was though - and how much movement there was.  So maybe the setting was an issue as well.  
Edited by A-time-to-live - 12/18/13 at 12:10am
post #4 of 15
Thread Starter 
What I'm really concerned about though isn't actually her reaction to the movie but his reaction to her reaction. The idea that we can or should do something to make her a less sensitive person. I am probably over-reacting because I was very hurt by my parents reaction to me as a child. I was often 'in trouble' for acting overly sensitive (usually for crying).
post #5 of 15

My kids, despite their various social and emotional quirks, have always handled movies really well and would not have been at all upset by the Polar Express at age 4. But at that age they were unusually sensitive to situations when they were with people they didn't know very well -- classes, group play, large-group activities, babysitters and so on. So there was none of that stuff for them at that age. They just weren't ready to participate in those things. It was awkward; I wondered if they were missing opportunities they might otherwise have enjoyed; it certainly complicated our lives at times. But they just weren't ready as soon as a lot of kids.


I've been a parent for almost 20 years and when something pushes a child too far out of her comfort zone, the answer is simply to let her be the child she is and wait for her to grow up a bit more. If the child's lack of readiness is a source of social discomfort to the parent, the answer for the parent is to be the grown-up and get over it. :eyesroll


Are there other things that your dd is unusually sensitive to? If so, you could point out to your dh that the "problem" obviously isn't just a lack of exposure to mainstream movies: it's something about who your child is. It's the level of emotional sensitivity she's currently wired for. Is there a reason why she needs to be toughened up ahead of her developmental schedule by exposing her repeatedly to upsetting stimuli? What advantage would it provide to her to be 'hardened' at age 4 by being subjected to emotional stress? Can he provide a reason that would justify the psychological trauma? I doubt it, and I think it's the job of parents to protect their child from suffering. I can pretty much guarantee that by age 10 she'll be able to sit through The Polar Express without the slightest bit of upset. There's no rush.



post #6 of 15

Polar Express creeped out our whole family to be honest. The visuals, the voices, the elves... just creepy.


It's pretty normal for kids that age to be sensitive to media. I wouldn't even say it's a "highly sensitive" thing. Both my kids went through it and it was pretty popular area of concern with parents when I was teaching preschool. Even kids who watch a lot at 2 and 3 can surprise their parents with a couple years of sensitivity. It's best just to take a break and revisit that form of entertainment later. That's what we did. My eldest at 16 is still sensitive and there are some movies she won't watch (and I can hardly blame her... I'm not lining up for horror and even some of the PG-13 violence in movies myself makes me squirm) but she's not abnormal in regards to her peers. DS 13 was really sensitive until about 8 and then he wanted to see every superhero movie every made. 


I know you know this and I wish I had some great article for your DH but this will pass. Your DD won't always fall apart in movie theaters. She doesn't need to be taught how to handle subjects, visuals and sounds she doesn't like. She'll just mature and it'll work itself out.

post #7 of 15
I don't think her reaction is extreme at all, nor did anyone else in the theatre most likely! We don't take ours to the theatre until after 5 just because of the sitting still factor but every kids movie I've seen there's been at least one kid crying/yelling/jumping up/ whatever. People expect that at a kid showing; it's really not the big disruption your DH is thinking it is. If anything people just thought "awww poor kid got scared, hope she's ok".

I sympathize with your anger! My older dd isn't sensitive, but shy...just like me as a kid...and my dh thought it was a problem to be fixed as well. He was embarassed sometimes when she refused to talk or hid behind us when someone tried to engage her. It felt like I spent a lot of time repeating "She's just like me. I grew up to be a normally functioning happy human and she will too! Neither of us has a defect, dammit!" wink1.gif
It did sink in, though. I hope your DH sees the light as well. Maybe ask him to stick to DVDs for awhile if he wants to share movies with her so it can be turned off if the content bothers her.

P.S. Polar Express sorta creeps me out too. Their faces are just....off somehow.
post #8 of 15

I had this problem with my daughter with both movies and books. She would not watch tv until she was in her teens and , socially, it was impossible to avoid them altogether. I was called up to school several times when she became faint and tearful over movies and upsetting subject content. The teachers were not very understanding! I talked to her about it when she was upset but I did not try to desensitise her. I did not think it would work and I did not want to upset her more.

She managed a full, adventurous childhood with very few movies. She was no sook in other ways. She travelled overseas many times without me, starting at nine years of age. In her teens she worked on an Australian cattle station during school holidays and also learnt to fly a plane using money she earned herself. She became a scientist and later a doctor and has learnt to cope with all kinds of upsetting situations. She has a lot of empathy which helps her in her work. She still watches very few movies.

I am writing this to show your husband, if you so wish, that your daughter will  master her feelings in her own time and way. To force it  may hurt her and damage your relationship with her. . The problem in the world today is that people have lost their empathy and their sensitivity has been blunted. We need sensitive people in this world.

post #9 of 15
Your daughter sounds a lot like mine with a big imagination that she can't really control yet.
I can definitely relate to you and your hubby... I was an anxious kid that had to learn to disguise a lot of my fears and all it did was make me an anxious adult. But I have also found myself in your husband's position, where I'm exasperated that we can't complete activity X without a meltdown because her anxiety is so great. Then I remind myself of what I would have wanted at that age. These are kids that cannot be pushed because it only heightens their anxiety more. You know, I may not have learned to ride a bike until I was nine, swim until I was ten, etc., but I still turned out (reasonably)okay.
Maybe DH needs to focus more on activities that DD enjoys and less about an activity that he wants her to enjoy...?
post #10 of 15

My younger daughter was like this. She was quite frightened watching "Elmo in Grouchland" in the movies at age 4- probably because she had a "security blanket" at the time and the movie hit too close to home. Had she watched it at home, with her blanket in her arms during the movie, she would have probably handled it better.


My response to this reaction was to stop taking her to movies until she was ready. She did OK with videos at home- they were not as loud or overwhelming, and she could leave the room during scary parts.


The second movie I took Hannah to see in the theater was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I think she was 11 at the time, and it's a PG-13 movie. I was afraid of how she might react to it, but she assured me that she WANTED to see it, didn't want me to take Leah without her, and it wouldn't be as scary because she'd already read the book multiple times. She did fine. She's seen plenty of movies since then. (There also might have been movies my Mom took her to see between Elmo and Harry Potter, but certainly nothing before she was at least 5, maybe 6.)


She's still highly sensitive, but fully functional in society. At age 17.5, I would gladly "let her" see R rated movies, but she generally has no desire to see them. She did see "Schindler's List" in 10th grade social studies class (I had to sign a consent form) and she wasn't unduly disturbed by it (it's the kind of movie that's supposed to be moving, and not "enjoyable" in the normal sense of the word.) She didn't get nightmares or otherwise have a bad reaction to it. But neither would she choose to watch something like "Silence of the  Lambs" or a horror movie. She does enjoy watching movies in the theater, and is hoping to see Frozen in the theaters over school break. I would never have considered taking her to see a movie like that in the theater before age 6 or so.


For your 4.5yo, I suggest that you simply not take her to the movies for a few years. Watching movies in the theater is much more intense than watching videos at home- and any movie you may want to share with her WILL come out on DVD a few months after it's in the theaters.


What really surprised me was how "un-sensitive" my son was. He had trouble sitting still for a whole movie at age 3 or 4, but was never frightened by them. I had to re-learn what was appropriate for a young child to  view- what Hannah couldn't handle at 6 was fine for Jack at 4. What Hannah could enjoy at 9, Jack could enjoy at 6. They're different people with different temperaments.

post #11 of 15

Sounds like my kid, too (dd1). Frankly at age 12, almost 13, she still doesn't like Polar Express (look up the "uncanny valley" effect). When she was your dd's age she ran from the room when Swiper the Fox or the Grumpy Old Troll came on Dora the Explorer! I took her to see "Catching Fire" this weekend, though, and she was completely fine with that, having read the book. She also looooves spoilers and will usually flip to the end of a book to check out how it ends before reading it. Her anxiety is just through the roof otherwise and she can't relax and enjoy it w/o worrying that something bad is going to happen. Tell Dad to save his movie money until she's ready. 

post #12 of 15
Thread Starter 
Thanks everyone for your replies. My first reaction was also that this isn't such extreme behavior for her age. DH was concerned because it was a packed theater with much younger children even present and she was the only one who reacted. I suggested that the parents of other children who are sensitive to movies probably kept them home but he didn't buy it.

I shared some of your responses with my husband, as well as some info about highly sensitive children that I found online, as well as some of my own experiences. He apologized and we are on the same page now - I think.

I know that he sees some of my preferences/behaviors/reactions, etc as problematic for me and I don't. Which is ok in our relationship because I can stick up for myself. I know I can intervene for her as well and he usually hears me - eventually. It is sometimes hard to know when intervention is needed though and when I am being overprotective because of my own experiences/preferences. For example - I was inclined to suggest from the beginning that she might not enjoy this experience as much as he was anticipating. But then I thought I might be wrong....
post #13 of 15

You know, it's really Ok for mom's and dad's to see things differently. I tell you, over the years, I haven't always been right (shocking I know lol.) I've been grateful for a different perspective in the house in regards to the kids. I fully admit to having backed off in areas my DH was really strong about and yep, he was right..... and vice versa. The important thing is you can talk and reason together and that, for the most part, your ideas on discipline are similar.


Your husband's response was pretty normal. It IS stressful to most of us when our kids act out in public. My youngest was a handful and lots of public tantrums when he was little (he had all sorts of sensitivities and quirks for which occupational therapy helped but it took us a while to figure it all out.) That initial response to "fix" is very normal. Accepting that this is just something your kid can't do right now takes time (talk to me about our big Disney World trip across the country only to sit on the sidelines of every ride because DS wouldn't go on anything!)


As for the younger children in the theatre being better behaved, that doesn't surprise me. Their comprehension levels are just different. They aren't going to be spooked by young children getting on a train with a cranky stranger in the middle of the night lol. When you don't comprehend what the stakes are then you have no reason to fear. Really, you can't compare a 4-year-old to a 2-year-old in that regard.

post #14 of 15

I can pretty much guarantee that by age 10 she'll be able to sit through The Polar Express without the slightest bit of upset. There's no rush.


This was fantastic. DS was terrified of pop-up books at that age, but now at almost ten is in fact just fine :)


I don't know if this would help your DH, but the way I think about moving forward developmentally is that regardless of whether we're going to wait for the child to move forward organically, or to push some, the next step for the child will always be i plus one. I mean, even if the adult's goal is i plus ten, the child will get there one step at a time. So when something feels like it needs to be encouraged, the first step is to figure out what i is, and the next step is to figure out what i plus one (or even i plus a half) is, and the next step is to try it out and see how it goes. If it's too hard work, it's probably too soon.


For this, maybe i plus one could be moving into a new group of books? or watching more ballets on youtube (cinderella, coppelia, midsummer, la fille mal gardee, sleeping beauty) or reading some ballet stories.

post #15 of 15
Lots of great responses here. I wanted to chime in as another highly sensitive adult. I feel like your response to her discomfort is totally valid and telling you to defend and support the sensitivity in her.
I recommend the book The Highly Sensitive Child, authored by Elaine Aron, Ph.d., for encouraging parenting advice in this area.
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