Teenagers have a bad rap in America right now. They do “dumb” things, like put tide pods in their mouths and jump out of moving vehicles. They do all of this for the same reasons we all do “dumb” things: we want to be accepted and/or we are trying to find out who we are. This can be explored through one of this writer’s favorite constructs, Disney.
What I love about Disney is how it exaggerates every day themes in a comical and animated way. When we dissect some of Disney’s most beloved films, we can find striking similarities between the characters and our teens. As we explore a few characters and movies below, we challenge you to read with an empathetic lens that may help you better understand, accept, and relate to your teens.
This is one of my personal favorite characters. Hercules is basically what we call adopted. He is casted off of Mount Olympus and is stuck in a challenging state of not being fully mortal, nor a God. This arbitrary state of being can also be found in teens, as they are awkwardly wedged in between childhood and adulthood. Hercules, like teens, is pressured to understand and define himself in this elusive and dichotomous position, and in the process faces mockery and isolation from his peers. Throughout the film, he grasps for connections and relationships in order to hide from his greatest fear- that he doesn’t belong. These feelings mirror how every teen feels to some extent or another. Even the most “popular” teens are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.
Throughout the film, Hercules battles isolation and rejection, both of which create a disconnect from others. In Hercules, Disney challenges the viewers to consider the social nature of humans and our embedded need for love and acceptance. While watching the film, we encourage you to replace Hercules with your adolescent, as they are likely faced with similar struggles. As you empathize with Hercules throughout the film, take note of the feelings you are left with and find a way to relay them to your son or daughter. It is easy to brush off our adolescents’ experiences as trivial or small, but in most cases, the root of depression is isolation. Just as Disney confronts us with the importance of acceptance, we encourage you to consider your teen’s journey to acceptance as one of the most important battles they will likely face in this season of their life.
Ariel is your stereotypical defiant teen. You want her to be singing at a concert and she is messing around with dingle hoppers and sharks. I know you parents can relate to king triton, but let’s look deeper into Ariel’s behavior and see where we can empathize and even gain some understanding.
Ariel is different from the other mermaids. She is interested in human artifacts and life out of the sea. She is isolated because of the treasures she finds and has a single fish friend,Flounder, and in that way she is happy and accepted at the same time. She is grossly misunderstood by everyone as a rebellious teen, when she really is just curious in a way other mer-people are not. She faces rejection and judgment for being different, yet her differences are what brings joy and happiness. On the surface, Ariel appears to be defiant and “bad,” yet upon closer inspection, she is simply curious and entranced by the vast offerings of the world.
Because she is misunderstood and forced to let go of her desires, Ariel decides to run away and find a sense of belonging and unconditional love elsewhere. And- spoiler alert- she finds just that from a human boy. I’m sure many parents can relate to their teens entranced by the juvenile, alluring acceptance of a forbidden love. In hindsight, we wonder how Ariel’s future might have looked if her father had taken the time to see the world through her eyes and made more of an effort to understand Ariel. If he had done so, he might have realized how innocent and harmless Ariel’s desires actually were. On the outside, we can find many compromises Ariel and her father could have made to live more harmoniously. We are left wondering if Triton could have kept his daughter safe from the dangers she ultimately faced if he would have found a way for Ariel to scratch her itch for adventure under his supervision rather than banning her from all of her misunderstood desires. After watching the film, we challenge you to learn from Triton’s mistakes and take the time to see the world through your children’s eyes. In doing so, you may find a way a balance between their wishes and your expectations.
Stuck between an island and the sea, Moana is an effervescent and daring character. Moana struggles between an alluring call from the sea and a devotion to her people on land. Similarly to Ariel, Moana is trapped in a state of all-or-nothing thinking- either she can have the sea or the land, but not both. We have worked with many teens who, too, struggle with black-and-white thinking and are trapped in an extreme state of believing they are either popular or a loser, or either smart or dumb. As adults, we are able to see the in-between more clearly, due to our more advanced cognitive development. Because of this, we encourage you to try and help your teen navigate to a more flexible mode of thinking. In order to do this, focus on strengthening your relationship with your children through empathy and understanding. In doing this you may find your teen blossoming into a more rational-minded young adult.
When I think of Aladdin, I think of a teenager trying hard to be something he is not in order to gain acceptance from his community and -shocking- a pretty girl. Jasmine’s acceptance and nonjudgmental nature provides Aladdin with an emotionally safe space to explore his identity and where his place is in his world. This exploration of identity is healthy and developmentally appropriate for teenagers, but, without guidance and supervision it can often lead them into trouble. Thankfully Aladdin and Jasmine navigate safely through many dangers on their journey of awareness, but we know the real world doesn’t offer quite as many last-minute opportunities of escape. Jasmine’s nonjudgemental nature and your level-headed adult thinking may be the perfect combination for providing your children with a safe place to explore themselves and the world around them.
Another misunderstood teenager, Belle enjoys things that other townspeople disapprove of, such as reading and adventure. She is asked to conform and is outcasted when she refuses. How many times has your teenager come home from school upset about being different or shunned?
It is not uncommon for parents to come home exhausted and in a bad mood after a long day of work. Why not? It has been a long tiring day! The same goes for you teenagers, except instead of work, they come home from school. It may seem trivial and easy to adults, but developmentally their frustration is justified. See if your child wants to talk about their day, but do not force them. Allow for some decompression time before asking. The last thing they probably want to do is talk about school right when they get off the bus or in the car.
I hope you enjoyed taking the time to compare your teen’s experiences with the experiences of these disney characters. To clarify, I am not saying is that your teenager’s actions are okay, but their feelings and experiences are valid. One of the easiest tools to use with teenagers is validation and empathy. Blending empathy and validation with your discipline could be the key to helping your teens make safe, yet developmentally appropriate choices. Take a look at this example below and see how adding empathy and understanding into how you communicate with your children could help you both get a touch of what you want and result in a peaceful night. “I see you are angry with me for taking away your phone, but your disrespectful tone is not acceptable. You can choose to have your phone back when you have calmed down, or you can choose to have it taken away for the rest of the night. It’s up to you.”
When your child becomes a teenager, they are developing their cognitive skills, as well we their physical bodies. Because their cognitive processes are not as concrete as their physical bodies are, it can be hard to remember that they are still have a long way to go to master critical thinking and conceptualizing. If you want them to give you a break, I suggest giving them a break as well. You have had a good bit of time to adjust, but this is a whole new world for your teenager.
Thank you for taking time to read this blog written by Julia Rose. For more information on working with your teens contact Julia Rose at Jrose@davidsonfamilytherapy.com