Depersonalizing media violence
November 23, 2009 1:55 AM   Subscribe

Now that I'm a mother, I'm hypersensitive to portrayals of child abuse or child death in movies and books. I just woke up from a nightmare induced by a novel that culminated in the murder of a child. How do I depersonalize violent media depictions of children? It's a terrible feeling to have some book or some movie eat away at me because I've inappropriately projected the situation onto my own daughter and let the book/movie play off irrational parental fears.
posted by crazycanuck to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a mother also. And I haven't found a way to do it. I avoid any kind of depictions of such things. One thing... the younger your child, the harder it is. And if the gender or age is approximate to your child.... it will be even harder.

It's truly, truly, truly awful ....but in one way helps us remember how precious our children are.

Just don't expose yourself for a few years. Maybe about 15.... sorry I can't give better news.
posted by taff at 2:17 AM on November 23, 2009

Seconding taff...I became the same way when I had my first. I like to think it's a normal part of being a protective mommy bear, nothing more.

You just need to avoid those types of things.
posted by dzaz at 2:35 AM on November 23, 2009

It happens to fathers too. I had to stop watching and reading that kind of thing.
posted by Katravax at 3:26 AM on November 23, 2009

Likewise, from the father's side. I tend to avoid most newspaper sites nowadays, since there's almost invariably some tragic tale involving a child about the same age as one of mine.
posted by nonspecialist at 3:30 AM on November 23, 2009

Completely normal, and it seems to be as common in fathers as it does mothers (at least in my circle of friends). I have one male friend who was still having these thoughts when his two daughters were in their teens.

You can't entirely depersonalise these things. The media has invented a world that, if it were real, would be exciting, event-filled, dangerous and pretty damn horrible, and it's a world that has been designed to elicit a strong emotional response. If a real hospital were anything like a TV hospital, for example, the staff would all be gibbering emotional wrecks inside a week. Media depictions cherry-pick events and compress 50 lifetimes of emotional turmoil and drama into every movie or TV episode.

So bear in mind how the media distorts reality to make it more intense. Also take comfort in statistics. There really isn't that much violence against children outside the family, so provided you're providing a safe, secure home, your daughter is very likely to have a trouble-free and happy childhood.

I think the important thing to do is to train yourself to think rational thoughts every time you start to feel that "Oh no, what if this were my child?" feeling. I like to use statistics; you may have a different coping mechanism. But it's important to develop some sort of filter that will help to prevent this kind of thinking from distorting your actual behaviour and making you over-protective.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:32 AM on November 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Depersonalizing may not be the strategy you need. The media sets up and gets exactly the reaction they want you to have. Avoiding the media is not the answer, being proactive is. I'm a firm believer in "out of sight, out of mind." Read reviews before you view or buy. Don't pick up media materials spontaneously because they look interesting. My sense is that reading and watching this stuff is like being in a dark alley in a bad neighborhood late at night, fear is everywhere. With a light and a map you don't have to be there.
posted by Xurando at 3:46 AM on November 23, 2009

Yeah, I just have to look away too.
posted by hawthorne at 3:48 AM on November 23, 2009

I'm neither a mothernor a father and long ago stopped reading newspapers for much the same reason as others haVe expressed here.
posted by dfriedman at 3:51 AM on November 23, 2009

Another father here, with a suggestion that what you're feeling is normal and you shouldn't work to desensitize yourself. I couldn't listen to the last Decemberists record, one of my favorite bands, because of this issue. Before I was a father, it never would have bothered me.

Celebrate the fact that you're sensitive, I say.
posted by jbickers at 4:17 AM on November 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

The first step to conquering an irrational fear is to realize it's irrational, so you're way ahead of most people.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:18 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing not attempting to depersonalize it. Instead, keep in mind that the likelihood of something like this actually happening to any child you've met is quite slim. Especially if it's a ficitional account: most of those situations are close to impossible unless you're a billionaire robot diplomat and the sociopathic evil-genius terrorist whom you wrestled into jail with your bare hands has dug his way out with paper napkins and This Time It's Personal. I'm being a little jokey, but that's more or less the type of situation that happens in movies, and if you find yourself exposed to something scarily violent in a movie or show, maybe reducing it to the most absurd plot points could help.

Other than that - be a good mama, teach your daughter to come to you right away if any grown-up is scary or weird, and both of you will be fine.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:20 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do it too. I was a huge horror movie/book fan and I can't watch any of it. I've been loving past seasons of Dexter and I cant watch this season. I think I'm getting worse as I get older. I don't project it onto my children, I just can't watch humans in terrifying situations anymore. The local news is just unbearable, every story seems to be some horror show. Something switched when I had a baby and my reaction to all that kind of adrenaline pumping stuff did a 180 turn. It kind of bums me out, I used to enjoy a good scare. Maybe having children is naturally stressful and your body can't take anymore, even "fun" stress like a good fright is too much. I guess I'll stick to Survivor and A-Team reruns. About all the excitement I can take these days. Ho hum.
posted by pearlybob at 5:31 AM on November 23, 2009

At my house we call it the "Law and Order" syndrome (after the show I was watching when I had to unexpectedly flee the room weeping, three days post-partum, and I'm also here to say its totally, completely normal.

If there is a way to depersonalize this, I haven't found it. As other above have said, I've just had to go out of my way to avoid it - including both news media and fictional portrayals.
posted by anastasiav at 5:43 AM on November 23, 2009

Ditto to everyone else. Started while I was pregnant, and I see no sign of it stopping.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:45 AM on November 23, 2009

The same thing happened to me when I became a parent. I was on an airplane watching "A Beautiful Mind" and the bathtub scene nearly made me jump out the exit door.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:53 AM on November 23, 2009

ahem - same thing as a father here - even after a couple of years, I tend to be overly sensitive to this.
posted by motdiem2 at 6:04 AM on November 23, 2009

Yes, it really never stops, and even happens with familiar scenes - last time I watched the Homicide episode where Adena Watson's mother is notified of her death, I almost couldn't go on. You could go work in law enforcement and numb yourself through repetition, but even then there are cases that stick out either because of circumstances or because my daughter was that age at that time.

Try to think of it as a feature, not a bug: this is a reminder to hug your kid and promise to protect her as far as possible.
posted by Flannery Culp at 6:28 AM on November 23, 2009

Yet another dad n-thing an attempt to distance yourself from these sorts of things. Nothing at all unusual in what you're feeling here.
posted by jquinby at 6:45 AM on November 23, 2009

I used to try and take away something that would help me to avoid the situation being depicted, then I stopped because most of the situations in movies don't lend themselves to my experiences. Then I tried to relax myself by saying 'Oh, this is just a bit of fiction, and it's not very realistic at that," but that didn't stop the dread (and took me out of the immersive movie experience.)

So yeah, like most others here I stopped watching those kinds of films. It's in our DNA to protect the ones we love. Celebrate this wonder of human nature and skip these traumas to have more of the good in your life.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:46 AM on November 23, 2009

It's a nearly universal thing, apparently. The ultra-sensitive switch gets turned on when we become parents and that's that.

I have noticed, however, that my reaction seems to be diminishing as my kids get older - they're 12 and nine. I don't feel desensitized, necessarily, it just doesn't seem as likely, maybe, that my kids could be that kid getting hurt? So maybe it does get a little easier as they pass those milestones and come out healthy? Just a thought.
posted by cooker girl at 6:56 AM on November 23, 2009

My wife and I stood up simultaneously and walked out of Bombay Millionaire about 30 minutes into the movie. Those who have seen it can guess which scene prompted our departure. Neither of us could sit through that. I would have been able to before having my son (who is now 3.5).

What I found most maddening was that the movie had been widely discussed and reviewed, and yet I hadn't gotten any sense that it was a violent film. I guess most people in our culture are just used to that sort of thing, and think that it's very run of the mill.

I'm still learning how to read film reviews closely enough to know whether a movie is one that I should avoid.
posted by alms at 7:18 AM on November 23, 2009

I think it just makes you more emotional now because you can relate to the story in a more direct way.

I am not a mother. Teh stories on the news and in fiction that stress me out the most are stories about rape (OMG that gang rape outside the California high school had me all kinds of worked up), random violence in "bad areas" (one of which I am a resident), and animal cruelty / torture because I can relate to teh feelings of the victims. I imagine if I were to become a mother, violence against children would bother me more because it would be more relateable then.

I cope by avoiding the nightly news and if I read a novel it's usually something pretty light and easy to get through. Mostly I just read non-fiction books about science or travel (Bill Bryson).
posted by WeekendJen at 7:34 AM on November 23, 2009

Cliche alert: This is a feature, not a flaw.

I mean, I think. I actually hate it, because I have an uncool and shameful love of true crime shows. I had a period of acute postpartum anxiety in which I couldn't stop thinking about horrible things happening to our tiny son. There are still L&O episodes I can't think about. There is a scene in David Simon's Homicide book I really, really can't think about.

I try to remind myself that this ability to empathize makes me a better human, because it doesn't translate into being a helicopter toddler-parent. Hopefully, in a weird way, it adds a little perspective to the inevitable fretting about our kid's diet or bath-refusal or the problem du jour, so it makes me a better parent as well (than I would otherwise have been.)

In other words, I don't know how to depersonalize it, but I can tell you that media violence turns out not to be all it's cracked up to be. I do realize how weird that sounds, but a life with fewer violent stories is hitting the spot right now.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:42 AM on November 23, 2009

I would say that if a fictional account has something like that in it, it's supposed to get that kind of visceral reaction from you. I don't think your reaction is irrational at all, in other words, because art ought to have that kind of effect on empathetic people. So don't think it's weird to be so shook up by those things. The same goes even more for news stories, which you didn't mention but a lot of the commenters did. Becoming desensitized to that sort of thing might seem like a great idea at the outset, but speaking from experience, it's a mixed bag.

Given that it's a normal reaction, though, the best you can do is avoid it, as others have said.
posted by Nattie at 8:16 AM on November 23, 2009

Wow, I was thinking about asking this same question a couple months ago when I realized my whole outlook has been pretty heavily skewed by all these emotions my children bring out in me. As a very macho manly man, I gotta say it's hard to reconcile with my own self-image. I finally decided that it was the Media's problem, not mine - and those people who depict these horrible things as 'entertainment' are beneath contempt. I think this is, on my (and other parents' part) to be commended.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:37 AM on November 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I will join the chorus of those telling you that this is perfectly normal. As a new father, I first realized that I had developed this sensitivity in reading an otherwise very dry judicial opinion in a case involving the death of a child. The fact section of the opinion including a summary of the events surrounding the child's death, and I literally could not read that portion of the opinion without making myself sick.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:57 AM on November 23, 2009

I haven't found a way to depersonalize it.

But I do give my kid an extra hug or a kiss after I read, see, or hear anything of this sort.

On Friday it was the story of the three year old in Portland, Oregon getting off the train and his dad who was stuck on it as the train doors closed him in unexpectedly. In that case, there was a very nice good Samaritan nearby who stayed with the kid, but I could only think about the seven minutes of terror and panic the father experienced (and then the elated joy of seeing him safe when he made his way back).
posted by zizzle at 9:49 AM on November 23, 2009

This isn't just limited to parents. I'm not a mother, but these things can affect me as well. And just for a counterpoint, reading a book where the protagonist's boyfriend died made me immediately want to go hug mine really tightly.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2009

I get disturbed just seeing depictions of a distressed child. Depictions of abuse and death are awful. And when it's not fiction, but reality? I've gone through a couple of weeks of deep depression after reading a particularly bad news article.

Is it possible to desensitize yourself to it? Possibly. What would that do to your psyche, though? I can't see any benefit.

I keep a wide, wide berth.
posted by moira at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, yes, yes! Any violence toward a child brings up a mental image of my toddler having that scared face that she gets and the genuine distress she undergoes from something as harmless as a person in a mask. I can't stand the idea that this other child went through those feelings, and it was for real, something to actually fear! I am sick just thinking about it.

For one thing, I stay away from altogether. I started avoiding it because they have child-harm stories at the top of the page nearly every single day. I know they are doing this on purpose for sensation. They know I will click on it.

A relative sent me a chain email about trying to keep a murderer in jail who was going to be released (supposedly, I didn't fact check) and it detailed every single thing that happened to the kid... to make you send it on, of course. Unbelieveable. I was on the verge of tears for two days and I have to admit I have not had contact with this relative since.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:15 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is actually a good thing. You are learning more empathy because now you have a concrete reminder to extrapolate from. The fact that people are NOT freaked out, makes it feel that our culture is TOO desensitized. I have no children, and these things absolutely horrify me and freak me out.

Take this as a good sign that you are more compassionate now.

Minimize your exposure. There are plenty of other options to read/watch/do.

Take action in stopping child abuse.
posted by Vaike at 10:26 AM on November 23, 2009

Yet another me too post. I find the extra level of vigilance over my media-viewing to be annoying, but I'd rather that than burst into tears at random while browsing or watching TV/movies. Before I was a parent I never understood why people seemed to delight in forwarding links about horrific news stories, now I wonder if there is something wrong with them. I really would rather not know, and I think there is some voyeuristic pleasure people get from forwarding bad news that they know will incur a reaction. I can't think of the word to describe it, but like supposedly upstanding people who gossip about others failings behind their backs.
posted by Joh at 3:13 PM on November 23, 2009

Is it possible to desensitize yourself to it? Possibly. What would that do to your psyche, though? I can't see any benefit.

That's what I came in to say. Since I got pregnant with baby anachronism, I am emotionally more vulnerable than I have ever been in my life. It is a good thing, a protective mannerism. Admittedly one exploited by the media, but shutting it down isn't the solution. I avoid a lot of media that is going to trigger that response, but crying at the part in The Incredibles with the plane and the missiles? That's not a bad thing.

That said, there's a big difference between that, and four days spent weeping on and off because I read a blog post about SIDS. Big difference. That takes it's toll and the only way to help myself out of it is to bombard myself with 'good' media and take care of my mental health. I've got a background of depression and anxiety so I have a bunch of coping mechanisms for when these things happen, I'd suggest something similar.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:16 PM on November 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks guys, more filtering it is. Guess next time I am in an airport I will pick up a business book and avoid random fiction like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The cover blurb didn't begin to describe the fundamental problems with this book for feeling people (investing hundreds of pages into a protagonist and then his father's murderer kills him off at the end but leaves his mother alive to suffer, all this under the guise of being a dog story). Good to know I am not alone in this.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:36 PM on November 23, 2009

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