7 Family Therapy Lessons From Disney’s Hit Movie Encanto
Spoilers ahead!! If you haven’t seen Encanto yet and want an uninfluenced perspective, come back to this article after watching. You can find it on Disney+
Guess who finally saw ENCANTO last week?! I LOVED it and I can not stop talking about it. Maybe that’s because of its banging soundtrack by Lin Manuel Miranda (which I am definitely listening to as I write this). And sure, it could be that classic Disney magic. But really, I think it is because it makes my little family therapist heart sing (pun-intended).
I’ve seen Disney Pixar address individual mental health topics before; think Inside Out and Soul. But unlike these other movies, Encanto highlights the intricacies of family dynamics. The movie details how family patterns can impact both individual mental health and overall family functioning. It’s no wonder that I have brought up Encanto in nearly every family therapy session this week! So let’s dig in: here are seven (and there are more, but there’s only so much time) family therapy themes found in Disney’s charming and poignant movie, Encanto!
1- Unprocessed grief and trauma will be passed on to future generations.
Encanto is a movie about intergenerational trauma. Doesn’t sound like Disney, eh? Well, it’s true! Throughout the movie, we meet the Madrigal family and learn about their “special gifts,” all of which stem from a miracle that saved the matriarch, Abuela, after losing her husband and becoming a single mother of three. Slowly but surely we begin to see that the traits which make each family member special also have downsides. We also see how the relationships between family members are more fractured than what originally meets the eye.
What we know about Abuela is this: She is serious, she runs a tight ship, and she encourages each person to “make the family proud”. She has a strong work-ethic and has little patience for playful shenanigans. She values keeping up with appearances, neither seeing herself nor showing to others the cracks in their family’s foundation (literally and figuratively speaking.) Her tolerance for hearing undesirable news is low, and only in private does she admit her fear and ask for help in protecting her family. On the surface this looks like denial.
But we also know that she loves her family very much and means well in everything that she does. With an empathic lens, one can see that Abuela is so afraid of the pain of enduring any more loss in her life. This fear and inability to be vulnerable in her grief, results in self-protective behaviors, experienced by others as impatience, judgmentalness, rigidity, and invalidation.
It came as no surprise to me that in the end, it’s implied that not only did Abuela’s husband die, but that she witnessed him be murdered. Talk about a “capital-T” trauma. Abuela never dealt with the fear and pain from these early adulthood experiences. Instead, she shifted into survival and self-protection mode. And as a result, the pain spread through the rest of the family, trickling down insidiously to future generations.
I say all of this not from a place of blame. But rather, to pinpoint where and how historical trauma can enter into family dynamics and impact everyone within the family system. When one person processes and heals their capital-T traumas, it is possible to prevent the lowercase-T traumas for the future generations.
2- Intergenerational trauma may seem to skip a generation, but with closer attention we know it does not.
We certainly can see the mental health impacts that Abuela’s pressure and invalidation has for her grandchildren’s generations. Lusia, Isabella, and Mirabel each have their own songs about their struggles (more on this later). But, just like in life, in Encanto, it is less obvious how the middle generation suffers from Abuela’s unresolved pain. Had the writers given them each their own song, here is how you’d see the intergenerational trauma impacting Pepa, Julieta, and Bruno.
Pepa’s special gift is that her mood controls the weather. We see her weather cloud change quite rapidly. It would appear that she experiences intense emotions without much ability to control them. This is a metaphor for emotional dysregulation. And just like the weather, when it comes to emotions in a codependent family, when it’s raining on one person it’s raining on everyone.
Wow, what a very subtle approach to showing the difficulty in balancing split loyalties between two generations. In different scenes, we see Julieta defending her mother to Mirabel and also defending Mirabel to her mother. What a difficult tightrope to walk. Even less obvious in the movie is the pain that people in Julieta’s role often experience: a combination of guilt, inadequacy, and exhaustion. It is impossible to successfully meet each of your loved ones’ conflicting emotional needs, all the while ignoring your own. (Reminder: her special gift is healing others, aka abandoning self-care to attend to others.)
As we see, the more Julieta tries to to protect Abuela from the pain of her own emotions, the more Julieta accidentally ignores or dismisses her children’s emotional needs. This perpetuates a less obvious, although more painful type of invalidation for the next generation.
**We don’t talk about Bruno** “They say he saw the future, one day he disappeared.” Well, we come to learn that this is because Abuela was unable to tolerate the uncertainty and confusion of his premonitions. Instead, her fear-based perspective kept her focused only on the negative aspects of those premonitions. And because, “I’m Bruno and everyone always assumes the worst,” Bruno is villianized. He becomes a symbol of bad luck for the family.
Only subtly does the movie show how he has internalized this message and carries self-blame and self-hatred. He came to believe that he and his gifts were hurting the family. He was compelled to leave, assuming that they’d be better off without him. In his own struggles with self-blame and uncertainty, he is paralyzed in a role of a “failure-to-launch” young adult, isolated from his family, neither leaving the home nor thriving independently.
But in reality we know that he is not bad. Nor were his visions bad. Abuela’s unresolved issues prevented her from seeing the other half of the equation. Had Abuela been able to focus equally on the positive aspects of the premonitions, Bruno may not have internalized so much self-hate and he may not have left the family. Or he may have left the family and flourished on his own. Either way, he may not have been stuck in limbo. And either way, he may not have become a symbol of back luck, making him the big family secret that people couldn’t talk about (more on this soon.)
3- The black sheep of the family is often the person to break dysfunctional patterns.
Mirabel is the only family member who doesn’t receive a special gift. She is different. Nobody knows what’s “wrong” with her. They write her off as unimportant, annoying, and even as a liar when she tries to warn them of danger. She is seen as problematic and ostracized as though her “issues” might “rub off” on others and cause more problems. And in a pivotal scene of the movie she quite literally tells Abuela that she feels she “will never been good enough [for you.]”
To an untrained eye, one might say that Mirabel’s digging for answers made things worse for the family. That she disobeyed instructions to stay out of the way. That she was not making the family proud.
This type of scapegoating is a common family pattern. The person in the family who challenges the status quo is frequently seen as the problem. They force others’ to sit with unresolved emotions that they’d otherwise be able to blissfully ignore. And yet, in reality, the scapegoat is often the healthiest person of the bunch, most able to be vulnerable and most able to change.
It is both a blessing and a curse to be that black sheep. It is painful to carry the burden of being the first to see things clearly. And it’s exhausting trying to convince others to change. However, with this insight also comes great strength and power to create change. It is because of Mirabel’s differences, her ability to be vulnerable with herself in her painful emotions, and her bravery to break ineffective family patterns, that the family is eventually able to heal.
4- There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to strength and perfectionism.
“Isabela and Luisa, the beauty and the brawn do no wrong.” Even insightful Mirabel does not initially see how her sisters’ gifts of strength and perfection actually cause them each a great deal of emotional pain. If anything, Mirabel envies their seemingly easy “golden-child” lives. That is, until we learn the truth.
Luisa’s featured song “Surface Pressure” quite literally highlights how the pressure to appear strong has caused her depression. “Under the surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless,” she says. She questions “if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy?” There are hints of comorbid anxiety here too, as Luisa fears being discovered for the weak person she fears she truly is.
And Isabela, as we learn, has only begrudgingly embraced the role of beautiful perfectionist. Instead, she actually feels constrained and stifled by this role assigned to her by her family. In her feature song “What Else Can I Do,” Isabela wonders what life would be like living “deeply, madly, truly in the moment… what can you do when you know who you wanna be is imperfect?” Her earlier displays of meanness and bullying might better be understood as resentment for having to be perfect in order to please the family, and an envy of those who do not bear that same burden.
Isabela and Luisa have buried their pains, living inauthentically, but dutifully. They stick to their roles in the family as they preserve the ineffective, but familiar status quo. That is, until they share their truth with Mirabel. Through their moments of vulnerability, we uncover that strength and perfectionism are anything but what they appear to be on the surface.
5- Family secrets keep everyone unhealthy.
Isabela and Luisa kept their true emotions a secret for quite some time. Had they been more truthful sooner, it’s possible healing may have begun sooner too.
But that’s not even the BIG family secret… The big family secret is **We don’t talk about Bruno.**
For years, nobody talked about Bruno and why he left. Had they, maybe there would not have been whispers of what happened, trying to make sense of it. The untrue rumors only perpetuated the pressure for the next generation: the grandkids needed to fall in line in order to avoid ending up villianized and ostracized like Bruno.
It was the truth that actually set the family free: both logistically and emotionally. Once the family started talking about the secret of Bruno, it led Mirabel to him. With willingness to embrace the fear of the unknown, he had another premonition that gave Mirabel actionable information for what to do next. The full interpretation was actually that she could heal the family by focusing on the one relationship within her immediate control- the fractured relationship with her sister Isabel. Without Bruno, Mirabel would not have had the logistical answers needed to move forward.
Furthermore, this scene also uncovers the truth in why Bruno left: to protect Mirabel and the rest of the family. We learn that Bruno is no villain at all. In fact, quite the opposite. He encourages Mirabel to move forward rather than giving up. He treats her as the strong person that she was, rather than treating her as though she was never going to be good enough. This empowerment inspired Mirabel to continue her quest to save the family. Bruno’s emotionally supportive relationship was just as essential as his logistical answers.
Had Bruno and his story remained a secret, it’s quite likely that none of the subsequent events would have occurred in healing the Madrigal Family.
6- Sometimes in order to heal, you have to burn down the whole thing and start over.
The more each family member breaks out of their dysfunctional roles and comes into their own, the more it seems to destroy the family. What a fitting metaphor of how individual health can threaten the homeostasis in a family that’s resistant to change.
Cracks and instability spread through Casita (the house, which metaphorically represents the whole family unit) and ultimately, the whole thing collapses. It is only in this rock-bottom that everyone can stop trying to hold things together. Because after all, what’s left to hold together when it is already destroyed?
This is the big turning point for Abuela. The fear of the unknown future is no longer an obstacle since the worst has already happened. And without that paralyzing fear, Abuela can finally see clearly. “We are broken because of me.” She couldn’t stand the thought of losing her family again, and yet she was inadvertently losing them by pushing them away in her unresolved grief.
The devil you know is safer than the one you don’t know.
Here’s the thing, the fear of falling apart is what stops most people from even trying. Imagine this: the movie starts by Mirabel learning that if she tears down the whole house she can prevent suffering in her family and everything would eventually be ok. Do you think she would do it?! Of course not! Rarely do people consciously choose the acute, short-term pain of tearing the whole thing down. And yet this is the necessity order to resolve chronic long-term suffering. It is this difficult and brave choice that leads to the healing.
In Encanto, the Madrigal family is blessed to stay together. Once the whole thing collapses, the family members embraces vulnerability and build empathy for one anohter. They accept help from the greater community rather rejecting it. And they rebuild healthier and stronger together. However, in real life, it doesn’t always happen like this. Even at rock-bottom, some people find it hard to be vulnerable and hard to accept help. When this happens, individuals may choose to start over alone. Instead of coming together, it might mean taking the lesson learned and creating a healthier version of family for their future generations, if not for the past.
7- Individual mental health symptoms are mistreated if they are not contextualized as family problems.
When seen in a vacuum, any one of the 3 grandchildren could have wound up in therapy for mental illness: Luisa with depression and anxiety, Isabella with anxiety and anger, or Mirabel with behavior defiance. But, as I’ve discussed, all of these symptoms were a product of dysfunctional family dynamics, secrets, and unresolved intergenerational trauma.
In therapy, when we see multiple kids from the same family all with different mental illness symptoms, we must consider earlier generations in the conceptualization of the children’s case. Sure, helping each individual to cope with their feelings would help in the short-term. But in the long-term, when they return home to the same family dynamic, the root causes remain unchanged and the painful feelings just come right back. This is exactly why family therapy is an essential, yet critically underserved and underutilized, speciality in the world of mental health!
What Encanto demonstrates so beautifully is the interconnectedness of families, for worse and also for better. While it’s true that family dynamics caused that a great deal of suffering, it’s also true that family connection and vulnerability brought the Madrigal family to health.
True change comes from healing the whole family. True change comes when older generations do the work to heal their own wounds. True change comes from accepting support of those around you. True change comes from vulnerability. And true change comes from leaning into the fear of what could be by letting go of what is.
“And so afraid of change, in a world that never stops changing. So let the walls come down, the world will never stop changing…. Wonders surround you, just let the walls come down. Don’t look behind you, fly til you find your way toward tomorrow.”Two Oruguitas– Performed by Sebastian Yatra, written by Lin Manuel Miranda
About The Author
Laura Goldstein, LCMFT is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and Founder of Montgomery County Counseling Center, LLC. Laura obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. She then went on to earn her Master’s degree in Family Therapy from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Laura became intensively trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) through Behavioral Tech Linehan Institute in 2015. She is also Level 1 Trained in Gottman Couples Therapy. Montgomery County Counseling Center serves Rockville, Olney, and Maryland individuals, families, parents, and couples who are struggling with intense emotions, fraught relationships, and maladaptive coping behaviors. Laura also provides mental health training and speaking engagements to bring psychoeducation to local communities.