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Author: Kelly Rodriguez

Kelly Rodriguez is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Southern California. She believes you are the expert of your life, yet, you are not alone in finding hope. Kelly knows firsthand the life change that can come from the right support and now works as a therapist to facilitate a process of growth for others.

5 mental health lessons in Disney’s ‘Encanto’

Have you seen Disney’s “Encanto”?

The movie caught the attention of people of all ages and backgrounds over the past few months with its catchy songs and relatable messages. As a Colombian-American mental health therapist, I found the movie’s many layers exciting, funny, surprising, emotional and also challenging. Although the story is based on a Latino family, the film crosses cultural differences to address topics relatable to most families—including important mental health topics.

The family at the center of the story, the Madrigals, represent a family caught up in the pressure of being perfect, and trying to keep up perfect appearances. Each family member was expected to “perform” their gift, even if it meant suppressing their true feelings and personality.

The movie brings up issues from perfectionism to family pressure, mental illness, estrangement, self-esteem, emotions, people-pleasing, generational trauma, boundaries, parenting, rejection, coping mechanisms and more. Here’s what I consider its five most important mental health lessons:

1. Everyone has a story that impacts our worldview. 

The “Encanto” characters have different personalities and stories that influence the way they relate to themselves and others. In the same way, our behaviors, feelings and thoughts are directly influenced by our life story and our upbringing. The reality is that our background impacts the way we experience the world—so it’s important to be aware of it. This includes both healthy and difficult experiences that may alter and shape the way we see ourselves and others.

In the movie, the grandmother’s unresolved trauma (being forced to move to a new land, becoming a young widow and mother in charge of the family while grieving) impacted the entire family dynamic and led to unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through the mental and emotional load. In the same way, when we go through life carrying unresolved painful experiences we can engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms: perfectionism, overworking, addiction, lying, people-pleasing, avoidance, isolation, comparison, and more.

When you become aware of your story, you can come to understand your needs and begin to break unhealthy patterns.

2. Your feelings are valid and it is okay to express them. 

Each “Encanto” character is carrying the emotional and mental load of being the “perfect family”—while avoiding the deeper issues jeopardizing their future and foundation. Throughout the movie, the family members, such as Pepa, are often shutdown and shamed when wanting to be themselves and express how they truly feel. They’re seen as too emotional. It’s an important reminder as hiding our true selves and our emotions can take a toll on our mental health and shake our foundation.

Suppressing our feelings can lead to anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem and isolation. Identifying, naming and expressing feelings is a human need and nothing to be ashamed of. It is crucial to find healthy outlets to express such feelings instead of ignoring or judging them. Healthy outlets include talking, journaling, praying and crying. Allowing ourselves to be authentic in how we feel and express those feelings is a way of improving our mental health and relationships.

Your feelings matter, they are valuable messengers.

3. A mental illness or challenge does not decrease your worth. 

During the movie, Luisa talks about the pressure and heavy mental and emotional load she carries but is afraid to show. She thinks her worth is only found in carrying and solving everyone’s problems and pretending to be strong through it all. What a heavy burden!

The song “Surface Pressure” describes so well what it feels like to experience anxiety and mental illness. Luisa sings about how strong the pressure is and how she feels she is carrying the weight of everyone’s expectations. This is closely related to the stigma around mental illness and how people may feel afraid to share their struggles, fearing it will be seen as weakness.

As another example, let’s talk about Bruno. He saw the world differently and didn’t fit the “family expectations” leading him to be estranged from the family. Bruno was portrayed as someone who had something seriously wrong with him. Yet the real problem was people didn’t get to know who he was and his story. His experience highlights the importance of taking the time to talk about mental health, mental illness and challenges that can affect the way we treat others.

A lack of understanding and fear of talking about it can lead to isolation, labeling and judgement. If you or someone you know has mental health struggles it doesn’t make them any less worthy than those around them.

Everyone deserves to be heard, respected and accepted.

4. Perfectionism is an illusion. 

Trying to meet everyone’s expectations is a heavy burden to carry, which Isabela and other members of the family discovered. Saying and doing all the right things to please others is exhausting and unsustainable. The Madrigals had been told to say and do the “right” things and perform their given tasks for the sake of the family’s legacy. However, in the inside, the foundation of their casita was only getting weaker and the cracks bigger no matter how hard they tried to please the family matriarch.

Mirabel was the only family member not given a specific gift or talent. As a result, she was often dismissed and ignored. Mirabel compared herself to others until she went through a transformation. It was only then she realized her role in the family and came to love and accept herself the way she was, which was her true gift.

It’s a good reminder to challenge society’s expectation to be a certain way or productive or perfect to gain acceptance. It’s okay to let go of perfectionism to protect your mental and emotional wellness. A flexible mindset will help you practice self-acceptance and healthier responses to life’s challenges.

Mistakes don’t mean you are failing but are learning and evolving.

5. Generational trauma is as real as generational healing. 

As Mirabel showed us, it takes one curious, brave and hopeful person to start breaking cycles and lead the healing path. Maybe the life story you carry has shaken your foundation but it is never too late to change things around. You do not need to wait until things are crumbling to take care of yourself. You deserve to break cycles, rest, heal and grow mentally, spiritually and emotionally. It is okay to be your true self and honor your needs without having to meet others’ expectations.

Part of taking care of your mental health includes self-kindness, boundaries, self-acceptance and authenticity. Accepting and being aware of who you are leads to healthier relationships with yourself and others. When we have difficulty embracing our true self we may get lost in the process of trying to fit in, compare ourselves to what others have, and miss out on the gifts we’re given. It was Mirabel’s curiosity and courage that helped her get out of the comparison spiral, discover her purpose and set her family on a path to healing.

No matter where you come from, you have a story. One of the most powerful tools to experience a mentally, spiritually and emotionally healthier life is to become aware of how your story impacts you today.

It’s never too late to talk about the hard things, be authentic and take care of your needs in order to move forward and evolve. Don’t wait until your foundation cracks. Start paying attention and make the changes you need today.

Pandemic Field Guide For Parents

Article originally posted on

During times of change and uncertainty, we try to nurture and help our children feel safe. We want to provide answers to their questions and teach them how to face tough situations. However, in recent days we’ve all experienced unexpected rapid and impactful changes in our daily lives. 

The coronavirus pandemic is a situation none of us have previously faced. This is a unique event, and we may therefore feel unsure and unprepared on how to best respond to our children in a way that will provide the safety we are used to giving them. As a parent, you are likely wondering when all of this will be over yourself. When will we be able to visit our friends and family again? When will my children play at their favorite park? When will we freely give hugs and shake hands? All of these questions are completely valid in a life-altering situation like the one we collectively face today.

Adult or child, most of us are experiencing anxious feelings about the sudden changes, social distancing, safety measures, disrupted daily routines and other shifts in your family dynamic. We simply do not have all the answers—and that may be true for a longer period of time than we initially anticipated. It is important to be aware of our own emotions so we can be role models to our children even in the midst of uncertainty.  

This moment in time will be part of our children’s memories. We can make it a positive experience in how we respond to them and help to identify healthy ways to cope with stress, change and uncertainty. Notably, if we are afraid to feel, recognize and accept our own discomfort, they will too.

Keep in mind that we are all grieving different losses—school events, daily routines, family visits, vacations, birthday parties and our sense of freedom. Without a doubt, this will impact a child’s mood and behavior, whether they verbalize it or not. It is important to pay attention to changes related to how children are coping with the current situation. Here are a number of things to consider.

Look out for tantrums. Young children may have more tantrums than usual, be withdrawn, clingy, hypersensitive or regress in their behaviors. In older children and adults, you may notice increased mood swings, physical complaints, nervousness, worry, distractibility or difficulty sleeping. No matter the age, these changes are a way of coping and seeking safety and comfort in the middle of a stressful situation. Feeling some level of anxiety at this time is a normal response and it is helpful to have some awareness of it.

Be willing to talk. If your child asks about what a pandemic is or what is happening, don’t avoid the conversation, be truthful. Be curious about what your child already knows. Use age-appropriate language and examples your child can relate to, which will help him or her feel safe.

Name your emotions. Identifying and naming your emotions will provide validation and a sense of control during this time of confusion. If you and your child are experiencing uncertainty, fear, powerlessness, anger or frustration, make an effort to practice healthy outlets for those strong emotions.

Create a routine. Providing a sense of structure will allow you and your child to have some control and feel empowered during this time. Keep in mind that “structure” right now looks different for everybody. Avoid comparing your experience to someone else’s. If the color-coded detailed schedule your friend sent you does not work for you, stay away from it. The purpose of a routine is not to add more stress to a situation that is already anxiety-producing. Work together with your child to create fun ways to provide structure and flexibility at the same time. Including them in the process will make them feel seen and valued.

Have a mood check in. For some of us, it may be uncomfortable and new territory to talk about our feelings. Even though you do not have all the answers, try to find ways to check in on your and your child’s emotional states. We are our child’s safety net, so now we just need to allow a release of those emotions they may not understand or even be aware of. This can be as easy as giving a comforting hug, encouraging journaling, dancing to a song, praying together, engaging in pretend play or simply listening to whatever is on their mind. All you need to do is be there and be fully present. Our children do not always want specific answers; often, what they want is validation.  

Stay connected. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. During this time, technology is a great source for staying connected to the people and things we value and miss. Additionally, knowing your limits and taking a break from the media when needed is a good way to model healthy boundaries and self-care.

Some days will be easier than others. Remember to be gracious to yourself and your child. You know your family better than anyone. Focus on what works for you and what has helped you thrive in times of past adversity. Please remember that you are an amazing parent—you are there for your child during a time that is challenging for us all.

Here’s The Roadmap to Creating Antiracism Change Today

Raising a new generation in the middle of a time where we are faced with chaos is not an easy task. In the last few weeks we have watched injustice put in the spotlight, but in reality, this has been a problem for hundreds of years. In order to change a systemic problem we need to disrupt what is not working to stop going in circles. This is an historic time in which we have a unique opportunity in our hands to choose to be agents of change and get to the root of the problem or simply be spectators. 

As a parent it can be painful and scary to think about the world our children are growing up in. However, the real challenge is how to channel the emotions that injustice evokes into actually doing something about it. We may be experiencing a wide range of feelings—we may feel angry, confused, numb, afraid, overwhelmed, outraged. Some may even feel indifferent or prefer to remain silent and neutral. But how can we stay quiet when this is the society we live in? 

What legacy are we leaving our children? What comes next for my family? What will happen in the upcoming weeks when the news changes its focus and forgets about the recent events? This is where the real challenge begins. We have seen people using different platforms to express their views, which is powerful. However, if we want to produce a wave of change for the years to come, we need to start in our family system. Family is one of the most transformative platforms to create real change in our society. We can either turn our backs and move on, or we become proactive in doing the hard work of confronting the real problem. Injustice and racism must be called by name. When we identify and name the problem for what it truly is instead of sugar coating it, we can be more effective in our efforts to do something about it.

The psychological impact of racism and injustice has a long-lasting effect that cannot be ignored. The individual and collective trauma caused by social injustice impacts people on different levels. The fear, the uncertainty, the hypervigilance, the powerlessness, manifest in different ways no matter the age. From a very young age, children start to recognize and learn ways to respond to those who look, talk and behave differently than them. If we want our children to practice kindness, justice, respect and love for others, we need to start now. What can we do to raise a generation that loves people, advocates for justice, and confronts a chaotic world?

­­­Explore your implicit bias. 

Before wanting to encourage our children to be peacemakers, we need to make sure we are truly ready and wanting to be part of the change. This will force us to first explore our own biases and values. This implicit bias refers directly to the ideas, attitudes and practices that influence our day-to-day behaviors; those ingrained values that we may not even be aware of. This may make us feel uncomfortable and may even bring up some shame and powerlessness for some. But when we address our own bias, we have the chance to grow. Could it be possible that we have been partaking in systemic injustice? Have I genuinely loved those who are different from me?

I urge you to truly look within and examine your beliefs. In what type of environments or communities do you feel more or less comfortable in, and most importantly, why? Do not be afraid to stay there for a moment, don’t rush it, reflect on it instead of shutting it down. The recent events have been a tipping point for many, and can become the awakening we need to lead us to challenge our own beliefs. Choosing to be part of the transformation is in fact uncomfortable and hard work. All of us have biases, but what we do about them is what makes the difference.

Explore your own family interactions.  

After acknowledging and reflecting on our own biases, we can now start to explore our family dynamic. The hard work starts when we make difficult topics part of our conversations. When was the last time you talked about justice and diversity in your home? It could be that you have been doing some work but there is more that can be done. Maybe the first conversation we need to have with our families will be taking responsibility for any unkindness we have modeled in the past. In order to help our children live justly and kindly we need to feel convicted, pray about it and take action. We can talk about our family values and interactions and break unhealthy cycles. 

Another way that this can be done is, for example, learning about microaggressions. This refers to the subtle ways we may have individually or as a family put others down in a “polite” way. Microaggressions may easily become part of our family system without realizing it and these are reflected in other settings. These are manifested in different ways (comments, jokes, the way we look at others). They send an implied message to people who are different from us that “they don’t belong.” In most cases the person receiving it is expected to tolerate it because it is not a “direct or clear offense.” We can teach our children to be mindful about the way they perceive and talk to people from other races, genders and backgrounds.

Take a stand and set clear boundaries. 

Children, no matter the age, are looking up to us for guidance to help them define their values. When we clearly define our views and beliefs, we also set clear boundaries in what will be tolerated as a response to diversity within our family dynamic. Being permissive and unclear regarding our family values creates confusion and ambivalence. Children are very good at knowing when we are being honest and genuine. If we talk about respecting and loving others, our family dynamic is where it starts.

Talk to your children about specific behaviors that will not be considered acceptable. For instance, how to respond when someone is making an inappropriate joke. Instead of remaining quiet or laughing about it will we stand up against it? Remember that silence is a stand in itself. We must also pay attention to our children’s attitudes, comments and behaviors because they are also being influenced by other people in different settings. When we set a strong foundation and clear boundaries, our children will be more open to talk to us about unfair situations and how they can be part of the change when they witness injustice.

Open your mind and heart to new experiences. 

What are the places and people you most often interact with? It is understandable that we feel inclined to spend our time with people who have similar interests. However, this is another opportunity to practice respect for diversity with our families. How can our children have opportunities to embrace and respect diversity if we never expose them to it?

For younger children we can use toys, books, playdates, shows, Bible stories and examples of their social interactions with people who are different from them. It is an opportunity to help them practice positive ways to respond to unfairness and inequality. For older children, have conversations about what they think about diversity, the accounts they follow and how they choose their friends. Identify ways for them to learn and interact with a variety of people. By doing so we are offering opportunities to practice inclusivity. Be open to listen to them and show interest when they express their curiosity.

Model empathy. 

The new generations are watching us. They are looking up to us to model justice, empathy and kindness. We can have conversations, read books, pray, but if our actions do not match our values, we are missing out on making a real impact. The ways we respond to the suffering of others will help the new generations to be world changers. How are we modeling empathy? Our children will learn to practice empathy through us. Empathy moves us from remaining spectators to responding to others’ suffering with compassion.

Amplify the importance of using their voices. 

Reminding our children of the importance of being a voice for the voiceless will lead them to take a proactive role against injustice. Teach them that their voices are valid, important and need to be heard. It is also important to mention that speaking up against injustice will not always be well received. However, this is part of the process and it does not mean it is not producing change. Encourage them to wisely speak up, stand up for themselves and for others and have a direct influence in the community.

If you are already doing some of these things, identify ways to increase their frequency and effectiveness. These small steps will produce change when we make them part of our ongoing family dynamic, not only when the news puts a spotlight on it. Remember that these conversations and actions do not need to be perfect or provide all the answers, they just need to start taking place. The change happens when we take a stand and decide what role we will choose to have moving forward regarding injustice.

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