Benoit's Young Fans May Be Affected

Young fans of the wrestling star may have trouble dealing with his tragic death.

June 26, 2007 — -- As a pro wrestler, Chris Benoit achieved hero status among young audiences with such moves as the "Crippler Crossface" and the "Sharpshooter."

But child psychology experts worry that the real-life violence that marked the end of his life -- in which he apparently slayed his family and killed himself in his Fayetteville, Ga., home -- may have a profound effect on his youngest fans.

"I think that this is going to be very disturbing for kids," says Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine.

As with the loss of any hero, young fans may react with depression and disappointment.

"They've lost a hero in multiple ways," Kaslow says. "In one sense, you have the death of someone who was admired; that's a loss. But then you also have the loss of respect -- we hope -- for someone, because murder-suicide is such a severe form of domestic abuse."

Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, says that the situation may offer parents an opportunity to scrutinize their children's heroes, particularly if they followed Benoit's career.

"Overall, it is important for parents to help kids take a look at their media heroes, whether they be rock stars or athletes or other public figures, and figure out what is admirable about that person and what is not so admirable," she said. "So some of it is dealing with hero worship in general."

But Kaslow worries that the tragedy, if it's not placed in proper context, also has the potential to lead to further violence.

"There is going to be grieving, a loss of respect and confusion," she says. "But some will think, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"

An Extension of Televised Violence?

While media sensationalism around highly public murder-suicides may be nothing new, Kaslow says some children may have difficulty separating Benoit's violent end from his wrestling-ring alter ego.

"This is a huge extension of that televised violence," she says. "In wrestling, you have aggression, but it is limited. Suddenly, we see that it has gone way over the edge."

The idea that Benoit's violent persona may have transcended the barrier between fantasy and reality could make it even harder for young fans of pro wrestling to draw the line between fact and fiction.

This becomes even more relevant considering their exposure to the violent TV programming of which Benoit was the star -- something that may have caused some of them to become accustomed to viewing violence in a different light.

"These kids may be desensitized and may not realize the real dangers here," Myers-Walls says.

"A lot of pro wrestling is fantasy; they're doing it for show," she says. "It is important for kids to realize that sometimes the effects of this violence is real, and they shouldn't try to copy the things they see."

Children See, Children Do

But that type of imitative behavior is exactly what some child psychology experts fear.

The idea that children tend to imitate what they watch on television is nothing new. In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics formed a Committee on Public Education to study the effects of media violence.

What the committee found through an extensive review of research was that violent acts and images in the media could contribute to imitation of aggressive behavior among kids and adolescents.

And last August, Robert H. DuRant, a professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center showed in a study of more than 2,000 high school students that watching professional wrestling on TV encourages aggressive behavior in teens when they date.

But could such imitation extend to the acceptance of violent acts such as Benoit's?

"Unfortunately, what we worry about is that some kids may identify with this guy, and then say, 'This type of behavior is acceptable,'" she says.

How Parents Can Help

Kaslow and Myers-Walls agree that the single most important thing that parents can do is to communicate openly with their children about it. Doing so can help young viewers fully process what has happened.

"One of the things parents need to realize is that kids don't watch the news the same way the adults do," Myers-Walls says. "So while the news story is out there, they may have just pieces of it, or have it mixed up. It's important for them to realize what happened.

"Parents need to help kids understand that sometimes violence is real, and sometimes people get hurt."

Young fans of Benoit -- those who followed the wrestler's career and whose bedroom walls are plastered with posters of his likeness -- may also need help from their parents to place their feelings into context.

"If the kids have his posters up, they should ask the kids if it is still something that makes sense rather than simply taking them down," Kaslow says.

Parents of those who viewed Benoit as a hero can also expect their children to progress through a range of emotions -- from depression and confusion to anger and resentment. This is entirely normal, as long as their emotions begin to even out over time.

"I certainly would be worried if a kid gets too obsessed with this beyond a few days," Kaslow says. "If a kid gets more aggressive, I would also be very concerned about that."

Parents must also be particularly sensitive to the fact that, in this case, one of the victims was Daniel Benoit -- a 7-year-old child with whom other kids may identify.

"This was a kid who was killed, and particularly kids who grow up in violent households could be afraid that this could happen to them," Kaslow says. "Some kids may begin to feel vulnerable in a way they hadn't before.

"Anytime you hear of a parent killing their child, it may make them feel vulnerable. It is very important for parents to step in and say, 'I would never hurt you.'"