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Healing Lessons From 'Encanto'

'Encanto' has been making waves, changing minds in homes around the world.

Key points

  • Movies can inspire feelings that invite people to reflect on their own lives.
  • Families can use animated movies to open up conversations related to family mental health and healing.
  • Culturally nourishing mainstream media depictions are powerful ways to inspire historically marginalized communities to talk about mental health.

Encanto has been on replay at our home over the past couple of weeks, and our two young kids have been trying to get our “casita” to respond to them. As a Latina child psychiatrist who specializes in family mental health, I was delighted by this movie, as it brought music to my ears—both literally and figuratively. My heart felt full joyously dancing and singing with Mirabel’s spontaneous morning family “round up” and seeing family secrets return to their rightful place.

Colombia's beauty is wonderfully depicted throughout the movie, with mouth-watering arepas and cozy, colorful towns full of flowers. Yet, to my child psychiatrist brain, what stood out were the family dynamics displayed in Encanto. These are not particular to Colombia—they are seen in homes across the world. Viewers can connect to at least one of these complex characters to help us process feelings integral to our growth and healing.

As a mental health provider and first responder to the child mental health crisis during the COVID pandemic, I urge families and young people watching this powerful movie to not look away, ignore, and move on from those feelings. Instead, we can sit with both the joy and discomfort, reflect and open up non-judgmental spaces for our families as they offer opportunities to enrich lives and protect mental health.

Many examples of family and social dynamics are depicted in the movie. Here are a few of them…

The forgotten power of spontaneous joy

The movie starts with Mirabel, the youngest of three sisters, singing the family history of “gifts” to enraptured neighborhood kids. The catchy and joyous song ends with strict Abuela asking “Mirabel, what are you doing?" promptly stopping Mirabel's spontaneous joy. Later, Isabela’s healing demonstrates the link between authenticity, spontaneity, and joy. In order to allow spontaneous joy into our lives, we must let go of our need for total control and learn to accept the messiness that comes with it.

The burden of "making our family proud"

The children of the Madrigal family are bestowed a magical gift at a young age and are expected to make their family proud by serving their family and community. The collectivist nature of Latinx culture is a powerful way of living. Yet in many families, children carry these expectations from a very early age, which can negatively impact their mental health.

In my clinical practice, I often sit across from kids and teens who feel the weight of sustaining their family financially or in some other way that is impossibly burdensome. Family members who recognize this dynamic at home can try explicitly naming ways that kids can support their families in a developmentally appropriate way may unburden them of unrealistic expectations.

Los problemas de la familia se quedan en casa ("The family's struggles stay at home")

Each of the Madrigals knew the foundation of their home was faltering, yet felt prohibited from talking about it or seeking help. The fear that the town would find out that there were cracks in the casita was greater than their ability to show their vulnerabilities and to seek and receive help—this was clearly modeled by Abuela.

The stigma that comes with this unhealthy family dynamic can keep children from seeking help when they are struggling or being open about their pressure and pain. Encouraging kids to seek help from trusted adults is a key practice for family mental health. Adults can learn to model vulnerability as a normal part of our lives and inform kids where they can safely seek help when needed.

Going beyond acceptance, embracing our differences

A salient example of the Madrigals’ willful neglect of any imperfection was the treatment of Tio Bruno—literally “we don’t talk about Bruno.” Rather than being open to Bruno and his unique gifts, the family came to demonize and force Bruno out.

Feelings of being unwanted, unheard, or misunderstood are common among kids who live with mental illness, are neurodiverse, or have different personalities. Family members who worry that a young one in their family might feel unwanted or misunderstood can begin by seeking support for themselves to reflect and examine how to best support their child—this often includes seeking help from clinicians.

Navigating family dynamics is no easy task. Most of us need support to do so effectively. Most importantly and applicable to every one of us, Encanto reminds us that, just like Mirabel, we all spend years trying to figure out our gift or miracle, not realizing that our gifts are already inside of us. We are the gift.

A shorter version of this piece was also published in the San Antonio Express News.

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