Could my daughter be affected by a violent scene on TV?
PROBLEM: I am worried that my 16-month-old daughter may be traumatised by something she saw on TV.
It was a Saturday night and my husband and I had started watching a movie when she woke up screaming with pain from teething.
I went down and brought her up to the sitting room to console her. She was sitting on my lap and I must have dozed off, as next thing I was woken by her shouting 'no, no' and pointing at the TV. A woman was being raped in the movie. My husband had also fallen asleep and we had no idea that the movie was so violent. Do you think this will affect her?
David replies: I don't think that a one-off experience such as the one you describe is likely to have any long-term impact on your daughter.
It is interesting, though, that even very young children have a sense that something they are witnessing is "bad".
Your daughter can have no knowledge of sex, or rape, and yet she intuitively knew that someone was hurting someone else.
Naturally, she rejected this as something that she did not want to see. She may have been a bit frightened by it, or upset by it.
The most important thing in terms of understanding how this may have affected your daughter is to recall what your response was, when you woke up, and how your daughter has seemed since that night.
My best guess is that you instinctively cuddled her and tried to shield her view from the TV. This would have given her an instant message that she herself was safe, and minded. It also reduced her exposure to the disturbing scenes to the minimum possible.
In other circumstances, if she was a bit older, you might then have tried to talk to her about what she saw, to try to judge the extent of her exposure to sexual violence, and to put the film into some kind of context.
Certainly if she was older, it would be important to have this kind of conversation with her. Older children may need to know that you understand that what they saw was distressing or disturbing.
They may also need your reassurance that this can't happen to them because you and their dad take lots of time to make sure they are safe.
Talking like this with children minimises the risk that any anxiety they may have felt will spiral into greater, or more generalised fears about men, or about sex.
However, because she is so small, I'd say you just took her off to bed and made sure, again, that she was surrounded by safe, comforting things like a special toy and her well-known environment of her comfy cot or bed.
The next consideration is how she has seemed since that night. Does she seem to be her normal self?
Has she shown any signs of anxiety such as increased clinginess, or making strange noises, when she was relaxed in someone's company before?
Has she shown any reluctance to be in the room with the TV? Has she indicated any distress at anyone else going to turn on the TV?
If the answer to these questions is 'no', then it is more likely that any emotional impact of what she saw was short-lived and has been resolved for her by feeling secure and safe with you and your family.
But, if she is more anxious or more distressed about the TV, or the TV room, then, even though she is so small, you may need to try to talk to her about what she saw.
You may say something like: "Do you remember you saw the man on the TV hurting the woman? That was probably really scary/upsetting (or whatever feeling you think was strongest for your daughter) for you. Me and your dad won't let anything bad like that happen to you."
Even if she doesn't understand all of what you say, she'll pick up enough of the words, and the understanding and comforting tone of your voice, to hopefully be reassured and feel safer.
There is a lesson in your experience for all of us which is that, despite our best intentions, it is so easy now for children of any age to be exposed to all sorts of disturbing scenes on television.
It reminds us all that we do need to be vigilant and attuned to what they might have seen.
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