Relax! TV and movie violence and kids’ behavior – the 4-11 and what to do about it.

Marcelle Abusalbi, MA-C—Sitting down to watch a movie with your child can be incredibly enjoyable. Whether it is a stay-in-Friday-night, TV watching, or a night out at a local cinema, it is fun to grab a snack or a vat of too-buttery popcorn, get comfortable, and experience a cartoon or new feature film.

If you’re like me you’ve ended up – no matter how well-intentioned– taking in movies that unexpectedly contain moments of physical altercation, sometimes intense. You’ve also been privy to dozens of cartoons or popular kids shows where people get beaten up, smacked, or attacked. Certainly we have movie ratings to guide us, G, PG, PG-13 – however, because every child has a different set of fears and sensitivities, there are still hidden moments that will create some sort of reaction.

Over time, we know that children will react in one of two ways – either fearful, or desensitized and therefore more likely to follow suit in enacting violent or aggressive behaviors. These psychological observations have perpetuated the topic of and questions regarding the effects of exposure to violence. How much violence is too much violence? And is there a long lasting effect of watching onscreen violence? And what are those consequences?

As early as the 1960s, studies began revealing a correlation between childhood aggression and TV and movie watching habits. Well known entities like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Institute of Mental Health have linked violent TV and movies with aggressive behavior in some young people. In child development classes I took at both undergraduate and graduate level, this correlational research caused many heated debates among students. Which came first? Is the child that reacts like this just naturally inclined towards aggressive behavior? Or is their behavior connected to violent scenes they have taken in?

When I became a parent this issue came to the forefront. First time parents first instinct is to protect that child from everything that some amount of research might suggest might do harm. And violence is simply everywhere on the airwaves. So the pull to act is strong. We want our children to be amazing little people that only contribute and never detract from the greater good of society. Simply put, parents will go to any length to ensure their children don’t become a statistic.

Children’s programs containing violence are divvied up into three categories: action/adventure, action/fantasy, and violent cartoons.

A National Television Violence Study, reviewing 10,000 hours of television programming, reported this:

  • 60% of the programs sampled contained violent scenes
  • 1/3 of the violent scenes showed villains who were never punished
  • 70% of these villains showed no remorse when committing violence
  • And sadly, fewer than 5% of the violent programs had anti-violence messages.

What is the mechanism of action? How does the correlation work? Researchers contend that children under the age or 7, who, because of their normal human brain development stage, cannot discern the difference between fantasy and reality, may imitate cartoon violence that are seen on shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers. Interestingly, one study of younger preschool-aged children showed that the children watching Batman & Superman were reported to be more physically active and aggressive than their cohort counterparts who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or other nonviolent programs. When the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, it is quite easy for our children to act out what they see, not understanding that in the real world, outside of TV and movie world, power punches result in hurt feelings, boo boos, and time outs.

Longitudinal research reveals a link between early childhood viewing habits and aggressive behavior at age 18. In these cases researches believe that desensitization and exposure to violence affects children’s attitudes toward violence and the world around them. Through desensitization the children purportedly learn by repeated viewing that harmful behaviors are okay – they are thus normalized – and they are no longer shocked by violence or its consequences. Remember the statistic from above? 1/3 of the offenders were never punished. 70% of villains showed no remorse. The message sent is “It’s okay to do bad things.” There is also something coined Mean World Syndrome, in which children exposed to much violence in TV programming arrive at the conclusion that the world is a dangerous and mean place – creating a sense of fear and reactivity.

So what do we do? As a new parent I wanted to pull my hair out. What was okay to watch? What was not okay? My now 14 year old loved the Batman cartoon series when she was very young – as her dad was a diehard fan of the comic book series. She took to it so much she started wearing a cape and a mask when we went on simple errands. I worried – was this going to affect her behavior at her childcare center? Was this ultimately contributing to her becoming a violent offender in 15 years?? Did I have to go to extremes and keep her from watching anything where a kick or a punch was featured? Would she watch only Sesame Street until young adulthood? Agh!

Luckily – it turns out there are super simple steps to take to ensure that your child can partake in “normal kid stuff” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and you will not have to fear their eventual incarceration at juvie.

Here is how to keep violence in movies and on TV from influencing your child’s behavior:

    1 – Control the number of hours your child watches TV. There is no magic number, unfortunately. Every source will give you a different amount based on age. But, if TV has become the new babysitter, a consistent substitute for outside play and social or quiet play, or you’ve memorized the content of every commercial, chances are it’s too much screen time. And no judgement – TV is so easy to take advantage of on days where you’re absolutely exhausted and need to tune out alongside your six year old – I should know.

    2 – Watch the programs with your child and discuss what your children see. In cartoons, we know that the characters can blow up to bits in one scene, and then magically resurrect themselves in the next, a la Looney Toons. Same for live action – bruises and damage to the physical self are never akin to what reality dictates. Talk about this discrepancy. “In real life, that person would need to go to the hospital.”

    3- Talk values. What makes the “bad guy” on TV the “bad guy?” It is helpful to be specific, such as, Johnny in the show isn’t using his words to solve a problem he has with his friend. We don’t do that in this family.

Overall, the research isn’t so awful that we need to kill our television sets, stay away from all movies over a G rating, or move to another planet. TV isn’t inherently evil. In addition to educational programming, children can glean social norms, understand humor, and observe interpersonal relationships play out. Movies and some TV shows can also be a rite of passage, and it is a shame to pass some of those up. For example, it was extremely important to their dad that my daughters watch Star Wars – a movie he grew up watching containing some violence.

Like with anything, kids benefit from explicit guidance – and that is paired down to simple conversations.



Past and Future, the Difference between Therapy and Coaching

Marcelle Abusalbi, MA-C — For a little over ten years I worked with clients as a therapist. Becoming a therapist is a long road filled with required education, training, and licensure. In order to become a therapist I needed to graduate with a BA in psychology from an accredited university, apply to a graduate school for graduate studies in counseling psychology, and secure a graduate internship in the community for both direct client contact hours and administrative hours - working from a theoretical stance and reporting to a clinical supervisor. This included learning how to conceptualize the client’s state and diagnosis if applicable, and apply theory in order to develop a comprehensive treatment plan, utilize techniques, and assess progress. Upon graduation, I was required to take a three hour state licensing exam that tested my knowledge of theoretical frameworks, psychological concepts, diagnostic categories, history of psychological research, and was asked to outline treatment plans for hypothetical case studies. You would think I was done after this exam, right? I still needed to complete 3,000 post-graduate internship hours. These hours were to take place in a clinical setting in the community, include a specific number of direct client time, and I needed to have a clinical supervisor to meet with each week for guidance and oversight. A long road!

I put this time and effort in because I felt the pull to “help others,” a canned but accurate truth. In graduate school you learn that almost every fellow student is there for this reason – each has a compelling story as to why they decided to pursue years and years of hard work and training necessary to be able to sit down and listen to someone in a bad place in their life.

The focus of therapy is quite specific, and therapy is dictated by certain theories, protocols, techniques, and subsequent treatment plans. There are dozens of theoretical stances that attempt to explain one thing, say depression, from a specific point of view. Therapy will take the present circumstance and quickly turn backwards with a specific lens (theory) to explain why the person got to where they are the moment they step into your office and are sitting across from you. Individuals seek therapy to heal from trauma, and for issues like anxiety, depression, family of origin issues, ADD, OCD, PTSD, and substance abuse. Therapy is problem focused, past focused, and works to establish healthy thinking and behaviors.

Coaching maintains a different perspective. While therapy focuses on the past in order to get individuals back on track, coaching focuses on the present in order to help individuals move forward and be their best selves. Coaching is future focused, solution focused, works towards outcomes, and helps people achieve their goals. Individuals that seek a coach tend to be functioning at a higher level than those who seek therapy. Typically there is a singular issue that just isn’t working for the time being. In coaching, core values and goals are outlined, and a coach works collaboratively with you until you meet the goals and have the desired outcome.

The relationship between client/therapist and client/coach is very different. If you were to ask why I re-routed towards a coaching role and career, I would point to this distinct relationship difference as the reason for the switch. To explain - the relationship between a client and their therapist or counselor is required, ethically and legally, to remain quite formal. Face time between appointments is limited, phone communication between appointments is monitored and strictly regulated. Therapists are discouraged to check in with clients too often. Therapists are discouraged from sharing their own personal experiences with their clients. In some theoretical stances therapists are even discouraged from showing any emotional reactions to the stories their clients bring in. For a decade I found this not only difficult to maintain but also demoralizing for myself and for clients. Although professional colleagues would disagree, my perspective is that this type of set up is hierarchical, unfair, and cold – when the initial goal of the field was to reach out and make a difference in clients’ lives. My instinct is to be warm, to be informal, to be emotional along with clients, and to be readily available for clients.

As a parent and kid coach I gather initial information about the present problem and the desired outcome. Coaching is intended to connect the dots between these two with very personable and tailor made guidance – with tangible and practical instruction based on child development research and decades of theory and research on parenting styles and technique. I was lucky enough to have taken child development and play therapy courses at an undergraduate, Masters, and doctoral level. Kids coaching differs from play therapy because of, again, the focus and the intent, however the same principles and materials (developmental/researched toys) are utilized.

Both lines of work, therapist and coach, are quite rewarding. Regardless of the path, you have the opportunity to offer yourself and make an impact in someone’s life on a short term and long term scale. The years and long hours of education and training are worthwhile considering the rewards of watching a client get back on track or reach their goals.

A Happy Divorce

Friends and strangers alike shoot me dubious glances when I mention that my ex-husband and I are still great friends. I get even stranger looks when I talk about us having lunch together, taking our kids out for dinner, or just hanging out and playing video games.

I was self-conscious about this at first. Was I a freak? Was something wrong with this whole set up? Were we required to hate each other? Spew indirect and nasty remarks about each other to our daughters? Get awkward when we spend time together? Lament the decades we spent with each other and sing woes of an era wasted on someone else’s time?

Not having many married or divorced friends, this whole unrequited hate concept was new to me. I had watched movies, dramas and comedies alike, ones in which divorced couples couldn’t be kept in the same room together: adult children have to keep mom and dad from going at each other’s throats at some family get together, like a wedding or some poorly planned reunion. I had assumed this was just a simple case of Hollywood putting its melodramatic flare to the normal everyday doldrums of life.

But here I was getting these incredulous inquisitions. “You’re friends? But…how?” I usually don’t know how to answer. I shrug and do the adolescent “I dunno” in that sing songy and detached manner that only a noncommittal teenager can pull off.

My ex-husband and I were together from the time that I first started driving up until 2 years ago. The math: age 17 through 34. He was a little over 20 – that sweet phase of young adulthood where you’re young and hip enough to have keg parties but not cool enough to worry about consequences. I had known him for 5 years before that. More math – a total of 22 years.
For a while this was my plausible reason for us still texting jokes back and forth taking each other’s advice. “We’ve known each other forever.” But, it was pointed out that there are plenty of 20+ relationships that don’t end this favorably. Spouse and other spouse, parent 1 and parent 2, are distant and cold or highly resentful – creating issues for their children.

Research literature is replete with less than favorable portraits of children of divorce, who develop into young adults bringing that first portrayal and role model for a relationship into their own marriages. I’ve worked with plenty of adult clients – grown children whose parents have been divorced once or twice. It’s not looked on favorably. I’ve worked with adolescents in group and individual settings – none have been too happy talking about mom and dad continuing to fight post-divorce. Divorce is almost never the exclusive reason for seeking counseling, as I work mainly with individuals in counseling – but is nevertheless a part of the therapeutic puzzle.

There is plenty of research on divorce and its effect on children. One thing is absolutely clear – it is not the divorce itself that determines the outcome of those little human beings – but how the divorce is handled by both parties – usually mom and dad. That’s huge, ameliorating the stress of that whole “what will divorce do to our children?” It’s clear over and over again in social science research and family therapy – high conflict divorces and the quality of that spousal relationship after that divorce will determine how that child will get on in school, get along with peers, their self- image, and how they will eventually view and manage romantic relationships.

Throughout marriage, my ex and I were awesome friends, for lack of a more adult-ish term, but crappy spouses.  We got on each other’s nerves, had totally different habitation rhythms, had different social approaches and socialization needs, and had very different ideas about what constituted a fun day.

We divorced, eventually moving out into separate places – and almost suddenly – the girls reached full potential. Grades improved, social spheres broadened, they laughed more, they talked more, and they engaged more. This positive shift is counter to what is often expected and portrayed in the media.

Our co-parenting style baffles others. We do not play the custody games. If they want to go to their dad’s, they are at their dad’s. If they want to visit me, they visit me. The stringent and imperious demands that exes place on sharing their children’s times saddens me. Even on paper – they are not mine, not his, but ours.

So why wouldn’t I want this ideal outcome for everyone? If I’m weird – why not be proud and share what I know? Maybe you don’t have to be true friends, but certainly a non-contentious relationship could be a goal to work towards.

Here’s a short list of what I believe helps exes co-parent effectively. (Extreme situations such as cases of severe verbal, sexual, and physical child and/or spousal abuse cannot be addressed here, as these cases are entrenched in trauma and have long term clinical implications)

Remembering why it is that you were friends in the first place (if you were indeed friends beforehand).

Maybe you liked the same movies, or both placed emphasis family values, or had the same dark sense of humor. There was some sort of shared commonality that led to “hanging out.” Remembering this will help you find at least one good thing in that person – and viewing your ex in a more positive manner relieves some tension in co-parenting.

Finding at least one thing you like in the others’ parenting approach.

Maybe your ex is great at teaching your child how to sew, or catch a ball. Maybe it is more abstract, such as instilling a love of learning. Emphasizing this positive will help build that mutual respect.

Respecting each other’s boundaries. This includes letting go of the givens – that you have the right to details about their current romantic life, that you have the right to know every day’s goings on like you did when you were married, that you have the right to know how their career is going. This isn’t your right any longer. Part of respect and working as a team is navigating healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries is a concept that comes up in family therapy repeatedly as it is an indicator of relationship success.

Respecting your children’s boundaries.

Children are not spies, nor are they to be used like pawns on a chess board. Casually asking little Johnny how often mom sees her new boyfriend is transparent. Johhny will catch on. Behaviors like this can only lead to irritation and resentment towards both parents. Children should not be used as little weapons either – little chess pieces in the continuing game of war between divorced partners. They are little humans with a set of undeniable rights, and not cogs.

Find a support system.

Family support is of the utmost importance. Grandparents may have strong opinions on your ex spouse. A sit down conversation highlighting the importance of not bad mouthing to children, of being there for family events and for the grandchildren is necessary. Understanding friends are also important, not only for the children but for the parents as well.

I’m not claiming to have the ultimate secret – the one undeniable way – the clear cut path to ultimate success. I know what works for me, I know what has worked for my ex, I know what has worked for our daughters. This list may not be welcome, and it may seem unsurmountable. The most pragmatic route would be to start seeing a mediator, or family counselor.

Ultimately, the goal is to help guide children into well adjusted adults that can navigate healthy relationships. Inculcating a sense of psychological wellness and sturdy sense of self is motivation for achieving this goal.