How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

It's easy to tell if your kid is mature enough to watch a PG-13 movie — it's pretty much right there in the rating. But how do you tell if your kid is ready for the hand-chopping Empire Strikes Back?

Not to mention a bunch of other genre classics that are for almost all ages, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Or some recent superhero films. There are a bunch of movies, TV shows and graphic novels that are maybe just a little too scary, violent or sexy for little kids. And there's no exact rule of thumb for how old a kid needs to be before they're ready to watch some dark, scary material.

So we asked some experts, and here's what they told us.

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

You can never really tell for sure if your kid is ready for adult themes and violence.
Every child develops at his or her own rate, and you can never tell for sure. Some kids are ready for heavy-duty violence and intense themes when they're still pretty young — but other kids aren't ready for PG-13 stuff even if they're already 13, says Tampa, FL child psychologist Jeremy S. Gaies Psy.D. "Parents need to consider their own child's maturity level and sensitivity to violence and graphic images."

"There's no magic answer to this," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What To Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. "Every human being on the planet is different and has different experiences and different degrees of sensitivity."

One general rule: eight is the turning point.
Judy Arnall with Professional Parenting Canada offers one general rule, which other experts seem to agree on:

Generally, kids can understand the difference between reality and fantasy around the age of eight, but it depends on each child. Some have a more sensitive temperament in which they can't handle scary movies, themes, screen violence (implied or graphic), monsters etc., even though logically, they know they are not real.

You can always get a sense of your own kid's readiness by seeing how they deal with other stuff. Like, do they like gruesome Halloween costumes or store decorations? If your kid seems sensitive to that kind of stuff, you may want to wait a few more years.

When in doubt, it's better to wait.
"I'm not somebody who believes in pushing kids to grow up," says Braun. "The repercussions of doing lots of things too early are great. The cost of saying, 'Not yet, you're not old enough' is less than the cost of psychiatry that may happen down the road." Images are much more powerful than words, so seeing something horrible can be way worse than just hearing it described.

"Once a kid sees something that's violent or sexual or too much for them to understand, once that's in their brain, it's impossible to get out," says Dr. Susan Bartell, author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. In the worst case scenario, you could end up with a child who's having nightmares or sleeping problems for months. "What they keep replaying over and over will get scarier and scarier for them."

A lot of really dark themes do go over the heads of kids.
On the other hand, "children often don't even pick up on many of these themes," says Sarah Newton, author of Help! My Teenager is an Alien. "Being there for the adults, they often go over the heads of younger children. Who can forget some of the very adult themes in Ghost Busters that parents worried about and children missed?"

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

You can't always tell at first how your child has absorbed something.
That's because the absorption doesn't happen immediately, says Braun. She remembers one mom who took her four-year-old daughter to see The Wizard of Oz, despite Braun's reservations. The next day, the mom reported that it was great, the daughter loved the movie, and there were no problems. But then three weeks later, there were flying monkeys everywhere. The little girl couldn't sleep because the flying monkeys would get her, and she was afraid to leave the house in case the flying monkeys were outside. "You have no idea how a child is going to absorb it down the line," says Braun.

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

Tons of shows and movies aimed at kids are dark and violent anyway
Children are much more used to violence and scary stuff than we think they are, thanks to some "quite graphic" children's television programs, says Newton. Children "are quite able to tell what is real and what is not, and often will find reality programmes, where animals get injured for example, far more disturbing." Plenty of Disney films have really intense or violent moments, too, like Sleeping Beauty.

In fact, Braun worries that Disney movies may be too intense for some small children — especially since many Disney movies feature children being separated from their parents. "That's very difficult for a child under eight." For example, Finding Nemo features the mom dying in the first act. Says Braun, "You have no idea how many parents called me and said, 'I had to leave the theater after the first twenty minutes'" of Nemo.

The bottom line is, you know your child better than anyone else, says Braun. You've been watching him or her play, and you know how he or she absorbs things. "Only you can be the judge of if your child is ready, and when your child is ready." If your child is scared of the dark or nervous about staying over at other kids' houses, that could be a sign that you should be cautious, says Bartell.

Some tips:

Do your research.
If you haven't seen a film for yourself — or you're a little hazy on what happens in it, because it's been a while — you can always check out reviews online. It's pretty easy to find reviews that specify the violence level of a movie. Braun recommends looking up the guides at sites like Commonsense Media.

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

See how your kid responds to stuff aimed at kids first.
"See how your children react to cartoons and programmes aimed at their age group, particularly ones which contain violence," advises Newton — before trying them on anything aimed at all ages. And sometimes, a small child will get freaked out or nervous watching children's programming that doesn't even contain much violence — like, maybe they find Big Bird on Sesame Street alarming. This could be a sign that they're not ready to see Ceti Alpha V worms crawl into people's ears.

Try watching scarier stuff on TV before going to the movies.
When you watch something on DVD, you can always fast-forward a bit if it's getting too upsetting, says Bartell. It's generally a smaller screen, and usually not quite as loud as the sound system in a movie theater. And if worst comes to worst, you can always turn it off and watch something else.

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

Talk to your kid before watching something that's on the edge.
You can kind of walk them through the intense parts of the movie or show, so they're a bit more prepared. You can turn this into a discussion about things that scare your kid, and "and the feeling of being scared and how it is so close to the feeling we get when we are excited," says Newton.

How can you tell if your kid is old enough to watch Empire Strikes Back, and other dark classics?S

Bartell also recommends having a talk about movie special effects, and the fact that with CG animation it's easier than ever to make stuff look real, even though it's not. It's important to check in with your kids and make sure they understand that none of this stuff is real. Sometimes, little kids have a hard time understanding that something's not real — like "really little kids who are afraid of clowns — no matter how much you tell them that it's a person under there, they just see the clown," says Bartell.

But be careful about describing what happens in a movie in too much detail, advises Braun — if you go into all the gory details of what happens to someone, your child will be even more eager and curious to see it. This is the same impulse that makes people slow down when they see a traffic accident, but it doesn't necessarily mean your child won't be freaked out later.

Watch it with your kid.
Keep an eye on their reactions, "but don't overreact or worry too much," says Newton. "Remember, we can't protect them from everything, but they are far more capable than we think they are."

Bartell offers some signs of distress to watch out for when you're watching a movie with your kids:

  • They're covering their eyes or ears, and generally shutting the movie out
  • They keep leaving to get a snack or go to the bathroom, as an excuse to take a break
  • They're crying
  • They're asking lots of questions, like "Could this really happen?" Or "What was that?"
  • They say they don't like the movie. Rather than admit they're freaking out, they may say something like, "This is stupid," or "I'm bored." In that case, don't try to get them to admit the truth — just go along with it. Say something like, "Yeah, it's fine. This is kind of boring," and leave.

Don't worry that there's something wrong with your kid.
There's nothing wrong with kids who don't like intense or violent stuff — even if other kids their age do. Every child is different, and there's no such thing as "normal" when it comes to this stuff, says Bartell.