Watch Out! Family Movies That Could Traumatize Your Kids

From loss to death and dying, a guide to the movie scenes that could cause emotional scars.

I don't mind admitting that there are movies that make me cry. Steel Magnolias gets me every time (that scene where Sally Field loses it after the funeral?), and even WALL-E left me blinking back a few tears (happy ones, but still). I come by my cinema-induced emotions honestly (my dad still tears up at Disney movies), and sometimes I even prefer a good flick that will let loose a few sniffles in the dark.

But I'm not a kid, and most of the movies that have made me cry are ones that I knew in advance I should have tissues handy for. It's a far different experience to be settled in for family movie night -- ready for a few laughs, a few "awwww" moments, and maybe a nice message or two -- and then get hit by THE SCENE: the one you aren't expecting that leaves your kids upset, teary-eyed, or even sobbing. We've rounded up some family-targeted movies that fall into a few key "watch out" categories and might make the kind of childhood memories you'd rather avoid. (Warning -- lots of spoilers ahead!)

Death of an Animal
Even the most hardened moviegoers can lose it when an innocent animal suffers on-screen, and kids are hardly the toughest nuts. Dog lovers, especially, beware: Many of the saddest movies on this list deal with painful events befalling man's best friend.

  • Charlotte's Web: When Wilbur's dear friend and constant champion weaves her last web after doing so much for others, many kids are caught unprepared.
  • Hachi: A Dog's Tale: This exceptionally loyal dog lives a long life before passing on, but much of it is spent waiting in vain for a beloved owner who has died unexpectedly.
  • Marley & Me: If you think this based-on-a-true-story tale is a typical dog movie, beware. Many families think they're in for silly dog antics ... and are left distraught by Marley's sad death.
  • My Dog Skip: Skip is another movie dog who ultimately dies of old age -- but not before being bullied and beaten and nearly perishing in some very sad scenes.
  • Old Yeller: Along with Bambi, Old Yeller is one of the most frequently cited emotionally traumatizing movies for kids. After the brave, loyal dog has a run-in with a rabid wolf, his young owner must put him down himself. Devastating.
  • Red Dog: This story about the loss of an exceptionally intelligent, loyal pet offers both joys and sorrows for animal lovers.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows: Life is hard for everyone in the Ozarks in the 1930s, and raccoon hounds Big Dan and Little Ann are no exception. Their tragic end is bound to leave animal-loving kids in tears.
  • The Yearling: Adapted from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, this heartrending tale of a boy who loses his beloved pet deer addresses the often-painful process of growing up.
  • Honorable mention: The Fox and the Hound: The main animal characters in this movie don't die, but they aren't allowed to be friends anymore, and their enforced separation is really hard for young kids to take.

Death of a Child
Many kids, especially really young ones, have no sense of their own mortality -- and why should they? So seeing a young person in danger or worse can be extremely distressing. These movies deal with children's deaths and the emotional aftermath.

  • Bridge to Terabithia: Anyone who's read the book that this touching drama is based on knows what's in store for fearless, imaginative Leslie -- misfit Jess' only friend -- but those expecting a fantasy adventure à la Harry Potter should be warned: Tragedy ahead!
  • Grave of the Fireflies: Beautifully animated but unrelentingly sad, this heartbreaking WWII-set anime tale centers on two children -- brother and sister -- who sicken and die.
  • My Girl: The unexpected death of preteen Vada's best friend (by bee sting, no less) hits many kids very hard, especially since much of the rest of the movie has a sweetly nostalgic feel.
  • The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Technically Timothy doesn't die, but he disappears forever, causing pain for those who loved him, which can be just as hard for kids to deal with.
  • Honorable mention: E.T.: No, E.T. isn't exactly a child, and no, he doesn't really die -- but for a few moments, it seems as if he's died, and those few moments can be enough to send young fans of the spunky little alien into a tailspin.

Death of a Parent
Few things are more upsetting to young children than something bad happening to a parent on-screen -- separation is bad enough, and death is even worse. All these movies include scenes in which a parent is lost (or in which the loss is recent or imminent):

  • Bambi: Bambi's mother's death takes place offscreen, but it's still the first thing most viewers remember, even decades later. Bambi's subsequent frantic search for her is almost as upsetting.
  • Dumbo: Dumbo's mother doesn't die, but she's cruelly separated from him after she's provoked into a scary rampage. The follow-up scene in which she cradles him with her trunk through the bars of her cage window is gut-wrenching.
  • Finding Nemo: Some parents we know just skip the first scene of this movie altogether until their kids are old enough to handle Nemo's mom's untimely demise at the jaws of a menacing predator fish.
  • Fly Away Home: The 13-year-old main character loses her mother in a car accident at the very beginning of the movie; the car is shown flipping several times.
  • The Good Dinosaur: Arlo's dad is abruptly washed away by a flash flood during a scary storm; timid Arlo is terrified.
  • The Land Before Time: Young dinosaur Littlefoot's mother is killed by an aggressive T. rex in this otherwise generally upbeat prehistoric adventure.
  • The Lion King: Not only does Simba's dad get trampled to death by a herd of stampeding wildebeests, but Simba unfairly blames himself for the tragedy.
  • A Little Princess: Main character Sara has already lost her mother, and then she's informed that her father has died in battle, leaving her to mourn him through much of the movie.
  • Mars Needs Moms: The mom doesn't actually die in this touching adventure, but there are references to the fact that she'll be killed when she's outlived her usefulness, and at one point it looks as if she has died.
  • Stepmom: This story about a family dealing with divorce and remarriage takes a tragic turn when the kids' mom is diagnosed with fatal cancer.
  • Tarzan: Baby Tarzan is orphaned after an aggressive, scary leopard kills his parents; they're discovered with bloody paw prints nearby.
  • We Bought a Zoo: Here, the mom passed away six months before the movie begins, but the impact on her family is very much in evidence. Sometimes watching characters deal with grief can be even more painful than the death itself.
  • Honorable mention: Up: While Ellie isn't a parent (which is another emotional aspect of the movie), her death at the end of an extremely poignant montage early in the film has a powerful impact.

Whether you're blindsided because a movie's ads conveniently "forget" to mention that there was sad stuff amid the kid-friendly comedy or because you just didn't know that a certain plot twist was coming, you still have to deal with the aftermath. These tips will help:

  • Before you push play or buy a ticket, check out detailed movie reviews (like ours!) to get a heads-up on potentially upsetting scenes.
  • Watch with your child, and be ready to offer a comforting hug or to pause the movie to talk about why a scene was sad or scary.
  • For kids 7 and under, scenes that deal with loss, separation, and kids and parents in peril are particularly unsettling, so be prepared to help them deal with the tough issues they see. It's best to answer kids' inevitable questions with direct, simple, and honest information and reassure them where you can. It's also important to process feelings of sadness and grief by expressing them -- mainly through play or an activity such as drawing a picture, playing with dolls, or simply talking.
  • Though older kids may have some understanding of loss and death, they too can be upset by both scary scenes (kidnapping, for example) as well as emotional ones. They may be particularly concerned with the details of death and dying, may tend to think of death as punishment, and may worry about pain and suffering. Address their questions, and provide safe outlets for them to express themselves.
  • Don't be afraid to say no to a movie your kid isn't ready for.

And don't forget that, with the right context, facing emotional moments like these as a family can be really important for kids. Movies (and TV shows) can help children deal with fears they're bound to have at some point; if you talk about them together and help defuse these fears before they come up in real life, your kids will start to develop a solid foundation for coping with life's inevitable ups and downs.