A 10-year-old is easily scared by stories. What’s a parent to do?

Meghan Leahy

THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: What are your thoughts about emotionally sensitive kids and books/movies?

My 10-year-old has always been easily scared by movies and stories. Even mild scariness or suspense still really gets to her. She’s extremely imaginative and perceptive, and it seems as if she really puts herself into the story, so she’s truly disturbed by some things that a lot of kids would gloss over.

I’m wondering whether this is something to try to help her “get over”. But only if it’s something that bothers her, like if she wants to enjoy the movies her friends do.

I’ve read that parents can make anxiety worse by helping children avoid the scary things versus helping them face their fears. But I don’t know if this is like that, or if it’s not anyone’s place to judge what types of movies a person “should” like.

She is on the cautious side in general, but I don’t see any worries that interfere with her day-to-day life. I’m similar in how vividly I see things when I read, and I also prefer movies with dialogue and relationships over suspense or thrills, so I get it.

I don’t want her to think there’s something wrong with being sensitive. At the same time, I know she will be exposed to scary things – both pretend and real – as she gets older, and I wonder whether well-done movies and books can help her prepare for that.

A: There are plenty of parents who are in the same boat as you. I’ll never forget taking my eldest daughter to see Tangled, a Disney movie based on Rapunzel.

Although she didn’t betray her thoughts during the movie, the first thing my then-six-year-old said when we left the movie was: “How many children get kidnapped from their moms?”

Yikes. Here I thought we liked the singing and the animals, but all my daughter focussed on was the first three minutes!

You seem to know your daughter well and, as a fellow sensitive person, you even understand her needs on a deeper level. She feels things differently.

Being “extremely imaginative and perceptive” means her senses are picking up more around her than some children’s. And although this creativity and intensity is a wonderful thing, it can be a tiring way to live. Your daughter’s nervous system may be easily taxed by simple day-to-day living, so adding violence or suspense is just a bridge too far.

The good news is you report that her daily life is not wracked with anxiety, and that can give you some breathing room for how to move forward. Creative and sensitive children can tend toward anxiety, but you don’t report any behaviors that point toward an anxiety diagnosis. As for how you can help her “get over” her emotional sensitivity? I think you and I both know that isn’t going to happen.

I often think of sensitive children as beautiful roses: Their bloom is stunning, but if you go in and pry open a closed rose bud, you will not only never see the bloom, but you will also ruin the rose.

Sensitive children must bloom in their own time, and forcing them to rush or “toughen up” will frustrate both them and you, and it will strip them of what makes them special.

This doesn’t mean your daughter can’t build resilience and ready herself for her middle school years.

Without throwing her into the deep end, you can continue to gently guide your daughter to her edges without pushing her straight over. Yes, life will deliver blow after blow, but sensitive people can handle this if they are allowed to mature to their greatest potential.

By helping your daughter tolerate doses of discomfort, you are growing her resilience without crushing her spirit.

So, go ahead and share slightly scary stories with your daughter, read books together that push her edges, and watch shows that are a bit suspenseful. It’s actually fun to pick apart what creates suspense (building music, a dark scene, a shadowy figure), and the more your daughter understands how authors and moviemakers do it, the more she can apply this information to her own creativity.

The shows and books you share may seem a little young for her age, but that’s fine. Again, you are wading into the pool together, not throwing her into the deep end of terror. And again, there are many ways to build resilience, whether physical, emotional or psychological. Try to resist focussing on movies and books as the only ways for your daughter to grow.

One of the greatest challenges for you may come in the form of being a sensitive parent with a sensitive child.

You may be tempted to compare your childhood with hers; you may worry about how much your daughter is going to suffer or be left out. You may try to interfere or change her, and you may find yourself over-identifying with her.

More than any changes you may want to make to or for your child, please be ready to check yourself first. The two of you may share a sensitive nature, but she is her own person, and she will suffer and endure if you are there to provide compassion and boundaries.