Bad Things Happen

January 19, 2017

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Posted in: Families, Hot Topics, Parenting Concerns, Teenagers, Young Adults

Bad things happen, and that’s a fundamental fact of life on this planet.

It’s not like we didn’t know this.  Since things have been happening to humans, there’ve been bad things happening to humans, and we’ve had to help our children to deal with them.  At the Clay Center, we’re often asked to think out loud about how best to discuss these issues with children and adolescents, and unfortunately we’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last few years.

But there’s another truism to accompany the long understood axiom that bad things happen.   That truism goes like this:

“Bad things happen, and eventually someone will make a movie about the bad thing that happened.”

This inevitability is especially pertinent to Boston right now as Patriots Day opens in theaters around the country.  And the movie is good.  It is well paced, its intentions are pure and honorable, and the film accurately and compassionately depicts the profound extent to which this city was shaken by the Boston Marathon bombing.  The film also demonstrates the strength of community and in that sense offers one of the best and most proven anecdotes to coping with traumatic events.  Human connection is one of the most robust predictors of coming through trauma with as few scars as possible.  The movie demonstrates all of this honestly and accurately.

The fact that films about recently shared and historically accurate traumatic events are more and more common brings up and interesting dilemma for parents:  To what extent are these films potentially more traumatizing?  Should we worry about our children seeing movies that recreate disasters?  Will these films open old wounds or perhaps create new ones?

Before diving into these murky waters, let’s look at the films that are out there.  As we mentioned above, we have the re-enacting of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing with Patriots Day.  The destruction of September 11th, 2001 has been told in multiple movies: United 93 (2006), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), to name only a few.  We could list more, but you get the picture (pun intended).  Rightly so, tragedy makes for compelling narratives, so we can count on more of these movies going forward.  After all, bad things happen.

But what do we say to parents who worry about their children watching these films?  Even R rated films are much more likely than in the past to be seen by children and teens who are under age 17.  Streaming sites, both legal and pirated, are plentiful.  Moreover, children are drawn to these stories.  My oldest daughter was born in 2000.  September 11th is a fundamental fact of her life.

As with many of the issues we’ve discussed, the answer to how best to approach these movies isn’t entirely clear.  Some researchers have pointed to the benefits of retelling a traumatic and historically accurate event through a personal narrative.  These studies note that the personal story makes the event more palpable and tolerable to viewers who experienced the trauma, but only of the protagonist in the film takes positive action. (Ashuri T. I Witness: Re-presenting Trauma in and by Cinema. Communication Review. July 2010;13(3):171-192)  Mark Wahlberg’s character in Patriot’s Day is a perfect example of this kind of therapeutic story telling.

Other researchers have found that some individuals who were directly traumatized and have difficulty preventing the re-experiencing thoughts that trauma engenders can be excessively triggered by on-screen accounts of similar traumas.  (Verwoerd J, Wessel I, Jong P, Nieuwenhuis M, Huntjens R. Pre-Stressor Interference Control and Intrusive Memories. Cognitive Therapy & Research. April 2011;35(2):161-170).  This might put some individuals at risk with films like Patriots Day.

The lessons we learn from these conflicting findings are in fact less murky than the findings themselves.  It never makes sense to force anyone to watch any kind of entertainment if that person doesn’t want to watch.  I’ve heard parents say that they want their children to see Patriots Day in order to help their children to experience the remarkable strength that Boston showed as it struggled to make sense of this awful occurrence.

We should all of course be proud of how the city of Boston fared, and this kind of courage is indicative of a particular American resiliency that is admirable and even necessary.  Nevertheless, it is not clear at all that seeing Patriot’s Day will instill the kind of pride that some parents hope.  This is because every child is different.

Parents know their children best.  If a child feels uncomfortable seeing Patriots Day, then that child need not see Patriots Day.  There is nothing consistent with the Boston Strong movement that dictates that one has to watch a movie in order to appreciate the admirable ways that the city responded.  Similarly, if a child wants to leave the movie in the middle, for goodness sakes, leave the movie.  That child is titrating what he or she can handle.  There are enough things in life that we have to tolerate.  A movie shouldn’t be one of them.

All of this is a reiteration of one of the core concepts of The Clay Center.  Children and teens differ developmentally and temperamentally.  Most 7 year-old should avoid watching Patriot’s Day simply because they aren’t developmentally ready.  In the strict world of safe and unsafe that characterizes life for a young child, the film may be a bit like drinking out of fire hydrant of unwanted realizations.  In the same vain, it may be that older children will find the film more than they can tolerate.  Further, they might not know this until they start watching the movie in the first place.  Of course, others may be completely unfazed.  It is entirely possible some young viewers might find the film riveting and inspiring.  Some might go simply to see Mark Wahlberg’s biceps.  And some might go for all of these reasons.

If you plan on taking your kids to see the film, ask them first whether it’s something they want to see.  Don’t make too big a deal out of it – a question like “Is this movie something you can handle” is likely to be heard as both a challenge and a warning.  Phrase your question more like “This movie is about the Boston Marathon Bombings.  It’s supposed to be pretty good, but I can imagine how it might also be upsetting.  Do you want to see it?”  And, if midway through the film your child seems uneasy, offer to leave.  You can also leave, by the way, if the film feels overwhelming.  If your child seems confused by your response, let him or her know that everyone is different and at that moment, it was more than you could handle.

For older kids who might be going with their friends, you can have a similar kind of discussion.  Teens might be more prone to muscle through a film even if they find it uncomfortable.  If you think that’s the case, offer to talk about the film when your teen returns home from the theater.  Like most teens, he or she will likely decline, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t hear your concern.  They’ll talk when they’re ready.

Finally, remember that the vast majority of young people are incredibly resilient.  They worry more about whether the pimple on the left side of their head is visible than whether a movie about the Marathon Bombing will unsettle them.  If you check in with your child and the response is the healthy and long-perfected eye-roll, then you’ve done your job.  If there’s fallout later, that’s what parents are for.

Like we said, bad things happen, and movies about bad things are increasingly inevitable.  Be thoughtful but not over-reactive.  Most kids will be absolutely fine through the bad things and the stories that follow.

Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

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