Horror movies, GTA and other parents’ boundaries

I recently received a message from a mum of a 7-year-old who was concerned about the choices being made by her son’s friend’s parents around films and technology. Her son had been shown horror movies at the friend’s house and his young mate was playing the video game Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Most of the games in the GTA series are rated M15+ in Australia and the latest version GTA-V (Rated R18+) has been in the news after major retailer Target Australia removed it from sale after customer pressure, due to its depiction of violence against women.

This email reminded me of similar concerns about boundaries that I had around things that were happening in some of my boys’ mate’s homes when they were younger. I was not as well informed in those days however I just knew at a gut level that I wanted to protect my sons for as long as I could from things that showed high levels of violence and also highly sexualised material – especially involving abuse, rape and senseless murder.

It was pretty simple for me: I just did not want them exposed at all!  As we did not have smart phones or the internet back then, there was no chance of them witnessing online porn, and the opportunity to play violent video games just wasn’t as frequent as it would be now. My lads were pretty typical boys – superhero obsessed, gun toting (imaginary guns) warriors who were seldom found without a sword, always striving to win mock battles and kill baddies.

They often took physical risks leaping from trees and rocks, rolling or running down hills, and they had their share of wounds and bruises. I seldom worried about these activities as in my childhood I often took part in similar play with siblings or other kids.

When I was working as a counsellor however, I worked with a lot of children who had been traumatised – not just upset or scared, traumatised – by being exposed to these same things I worried about.

Children’s brains are sensitive and it takes years to make sense of adult stuff

Children’s brains are sensitive and it takes years to make sense of ‘adult stuff’. There is some research that shows that people can become de-sensitised to violence in video games, especially the kind they do a lot – for example playing GTA instead of Donkey Kong. I also once worked with a 4-year-old girl who accidentally accessed a porn site and subsequently became frightened around her daddy even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. The man she witnessed doing something unmentionable to a child now represented her world view of men and that view had been shattered.

I also worked with an 8-year-old boy who was traumatised after being on a sleepover when an older child showed him the horror movie, Scream, and needless to say he will most likely struggle around certain scenes for a very long time.

Developmentally, when children are exposed to violent images too soon it can create mental pathways of hypersensitivity, which potentially could trigger mental health issues down the track. It is so much better to protect our precious children than try to repair the damage done later.

I counselled a 14-year-old girl who watched a film where a girl’s parents were murdered and she has had serious issues with anxiety, especially around her mum’s safety, ever since. We can never know when a scene – even from the news – might have a powerful, negative impact on a child and this is why we need to be mindful as parents to keep our children safe by monitoring what they see.

Safeguarding kids in other people’s homes

We are the protectors and guardians of our children however we are unable to make other parents make choices we agree with. If you are concerned about lax boundaries in another child’’s house, start by explaining to your children your concerns.

Firstly talk about ‘early warning signs’ that our body will trigger when our safety may be being threatened. That might feel like tingling or the sensation of butterflies in the tummy. I explore this in my audio track Soothing the Frightened Butterflies. Kids need to know what those sensations feel like and what steps they can take to stay safe.

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Maybe give them some strategies to use if they are watching something that makes them feel uneasy or uncomfortable – close their eyes, cover their heads with a blanket or leave the room. I still close my eyes often in films as I know I get easily scared or upset at senseless violence. Then have a calm family conversation explaining your reasons around boundaries.

Next, please mention your boundaries to the parents of the friend who your child may be visiting. If you can mention in a light, even exaggerated, way that you may be over protective and a worry wart, however just ask that your child is not exposed to films or video games that are not age appropriate they are likely to take your concerns on board. You can even say “I don’t allow my kids to watch M movies or play games that are rated higher than PG”, for example, to clarify what age-appropriate means for you.

If you communicate your concerns to another parent as someone who is worried about their parenting choices, it will be less effective and even could be seen as offensive.

The next step would be to request your children to tell you if your requests regarding age-appropriate technology or films have been met. If not then the privilege of going to that friend’s house will need to be withdrawn. They can come play at your house, no problems, but explain to your child that it’s your job to keep them safe. Often you don’’t need to tell the other parents, just gradually over time avoid going. If they question you, be compassionately honest and be very welcoming of the child’s continued friendship everywhere but at their house. And of course don’t forget to keep an eye on what’s happening at your place when technology is involved and providing adequate supervision (and keeping an eye on browser histories, etc. or making sure you instal one of the parental control devices such as Family Zone) for your child and their friends.

Remember parents all want to do the best they can for their children and only a tiny number intentionally hurt their children. However, some simply make choices without serious consideration about possible long-term consequences. In today’s rapidly changing world with an overload of information, being poorly informed is not a sign a parent is bad, just lacking information to make a better choice. I am sure my ‘free range’ parenting choices would have worried parents in my community too back in the day, and some of them were a bit anxious when their lads came to play at the Dent’s place – no worries about watching inappropriate stuff, just worried about possible physical injuries from daring antics!

Keeping healthy boundaries is an important part of parenting. The boundaries we choose are based on the family values that are important to you and your partner. You as the parent are the one who is the key guardian and protector of your children and sometimes your choices may differ from others in your circle of friendships. That’s OK. Stand strong with compassion.

Explain to your children that people are all different and as a result different families have different values – it’s not bad or good, it is just different. Tell them your reasons for holding particular beliefs and be prepared that they may disagree with you. They are children and so are not yet in the best position to make sound, rational decisions. I definitely think being safe is better than sorry. These are all just steps in the sometimes difficult dance we call parenting.