As soon as the Disney Pixar animation Turning Red came out earlier this month, it caused a stir with people across the globe. The coming-of-age story is about 13 year old Meilin Lee, a Canadian Chinese teen on the brink of puberty. And, thanks to a family curse (or gift), when she comes of age, she turns into a red panda. That’s right. An adorable, red, gigantic, fuzzy panda. Through the film, kids learn about handling big emotions, defining their identity, and open communication. But there’s a lot in this film for adults too. Here are five lessons it teaches us about raising kids.
- Big feelings are normal
Mei first turns into a panda when she gets a crush, and soon, she realizes that any overwhelming emotion can transform her. Intense anger, happiness, shame, joy and fear all trigger the panda. While these can all be connected to puberty (including a reference to Mei starting her period), the fact is we all feel big emotions. So, when we – or our kids – feel them, we need to remember that we are not broken. Big feelings are a sign of being human. It’s what we do with the feelings that defines us. Which leads us to…
- Self soothing is an essential tool for all ages
When Mei turns into a panda, she panics and causes chaos, damaging everything around her. But when she stops and practices deep breathing, she becomes human again. We also see Mei practice self-soothing techniques when she brushes her panda-cheeks (sensory stimulation), when she sings with her friends, and when she is held by them. Over time, Mei learns to control the panda by using these techniques.
We can learn to hold and then harness our emotions in the same way by finding out own self soothing strategies. This is also a great tool for kids when they are having meltdowns, and a great reason to make use of sensory toys, sand play, card games, calming music, or a kid’s meditation app.
- We heal by processing emotions, not suppressing them
Culturally, we are often taught to suppress our big emotions and pretend everything is ok. It means that people of all ages feel shamed when they ‘over react’ – and from a young age, we are taught to hold in our big feelings and ‘get over’ them. Turning Red reminds us that suppressing our emotions isn’t healthy. In fact, when we do push everything down and try to keep going, we eventually erupt.
We see this clearly when Mei’s mum breaks out her panda for the first time in decades, and is utterly overcome by her anger, disappointment and pain. Instead of living in denial of our emotions, we can choose to process them like Mei. While this is difficult and hard self-work, it gives us the ability to fully live in the moment. For Mei, learning to accept and control her emotions (or even dwell within them), means she can harness her agency, identity and power. In essence, her ability to express her big feelings is her superpower. It’s not always comfortable, but it leads to a greater love of self.
- We have to break generational dysfunction
Early in Turning Red, Mei thrives because she meets her parent’s high expectations. She is an over-achiever and will do anything to please her mother even if it means suppressing her true self. This is near impossible when she turns into a panda overnight, and Mei has to deal with the generational dysfunction her mother has passed on, rejecting her hyper-control and setting boundaries.
Later on, we see that Mei’s grandmother also traumatized her mum, resulting in an estranged and fearful relationship. In fact, when her grandmother arrives, Mei’s mother becomes like a quivering child! We soon learn that the need to please and meet unrealistic expectations runs in the family, and by choosing to love her panda-self, Mei breaks that cycle. In the same way, we have to choose to break dysfunction that has been handed down to us. We can easily project bad habits, toxic traits and trauma onto our kids without realizing it. But by being aware of our own baggage and working through it, we can break this cycle and prevent our kids from taking on our own pain.
- Compromise is key
It is challenging to raise kids, and the transition from child to teen is complex. The need to protect children, while also giving them the room to flourish, is never clearly defined. That’s why compromise is key. Initially, Mei’s mum was unwilling to compromise with her daughter. Her schedule, appetite, hygiene and interests were all defined by her mum. And as soon as she tried to make her mark (by listening to a boy band none the less), her mum panicked and tried to hide her away. This cause Mei to rebel, and she literally became a red panda to break free and attend a concert!
If we try to control our children, they will eventually rebel as well. And the ramifications of this can also lead to relational estrangement and other dangerous behaviour. Our best course of action then, is to comprise. Set clear boundaries for your kids, but give them room to express themselves and ask questions. Allowing them to choose their own clothing, extracurricular activities and interests plays a role in this. And if they show interest in something that you think could be dangerous, ask them about it. Sometimes we have to say no or meet them half way. Other times, we are so scared of what is new and different, that we reject it before we give it a chance. So give your child a chance to explain it to you.
Turning Red is streaming on Disney Plus now.
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