We all watched as that duct-tape enforced balloon drifted higher and higher, and now we all shake our heads with disapproval as more facts come out about the Heene parents, who had appeared with their kids on "Wife Swap" and were hoping to score another reality-show breakthrough. As 6-year-old Falcon Heene vomited during media interviews and then stated on CNN's "Larry King Live" what appears to be the true crux of the ballooning story-"You guys said we did this for the show"-it became clear that his reality-show driven parents might actually be living in an alternate reality.
But there are ways you can keep your own kids from being impacted by reality television. As a psychotherapist and CEO of the Personal Growth Institute, a non-profit psychotherapy agency dedicated to helping individuals, couples, children, teens and families in Los Angeles, Dr. Foojan Zeine has some advice for how parents can keep their own children from being seduced by what they see on screen.
She says that parents need to teach kids the difference between "reality" and "entertainment," because for today's kids the line has become so thin. Whether it's "Jon & Kate Plus 8"/ "Kate Plus Eight" or "18 Kids and Counting," "Nanny 911" or "SuperNanny," "The Baby Borrowers" or "Toddlers & Tiaras," each episode passes off these larger-than-life shows as true-to-life.
The problem that Dr. Zeine sees most frequently in her patients is a disconnect between their lives and the lives they see on television. That's because reality shows have to have some kind of plot or excitement if they want to stay on the air, so the kids who star in them have to act up and practically become a caricature of themselves to make for interesting TV.
The kids who are at home viewing naturally compare the shows to their own lives, and often conclude that their day-to-day existence is pretty darn boring. They don't see kids on TV having any downtime, so when they, themselves have free time they're not even sure of what to do with it.
"It's a lot of stress for the kids on TV, but also it's a lot of stress for the people who are watching. Why? Because they also think, 'My life is boring, and I've got to constantly come up with something else,'" says Dr. Zeine.
She says that one way to solve that problem is for parents to sit down and watch the reality show with their child. That way, they can discuss the ways that kids behave and what's acceptable or not acceptable about what they're seeing, along with what's real and what's likely staged for the purpose of plot. This kind of open communication not only helps kids better understand the line between real and entertainment, it can also help strengthen your own family relationship.
"You open a dialogue with your children and then do your own parenting piece at that moment. So you can take the reality show and make it into an educational piece for yourself."
It's an easy enough solution for those of us on this side of the plasma screen, but what about the kids who are actually in the shows? Hopefully their parents have a decent therapist lined up. Because the children who have roles on the TV shows are in need of a reality check, says Dr. Zeine. Whereas child actors have always been likely candidates for the next "E! True Hollywood Story," she says that because of excess stress and unrealistic expectations, child reality show stars could actually be in for an even more difficult future.
"I think it's worse for the reality show group because they don't have to have any skills," she says. "They get it that they don't have to do anything, they just need to be on TV and be sensational. They have to exaggerate. They have to do something silly or weird just to get attention. So I think it's almost like the difference of gambling and learning a skill to get better at."In the case of the Heene family, that gambling didn't exactly lead to a jackpot. For the sake of Falcon and his brothers, let's hope that they've been grounded by the experience, in more ways than one.
--Article by Kate Silver for Parents.com
Photo credits: Heene family image by ABC/Splash News; Gosselin family image by Kaysh Shinn