Libby’s Guide to Disney’s Guide to Healthy Relationships
Authored By: Libby Woolverton, Our Friends Place
When I think about some of the best lessons I ever learned growing up, the ones that really stuck with me, I always think about Disney movies. Stay with me here. Pinocchio teaches us to be honest and own up to our mistakes. Beauty and the Beast tells us that reading is fundamental and to never judge a book, or a person (or a beast), by its cover. The Lion King reminds us to always be true to ourselves and to remember who we are—and I didn’t even have to be hit in the head by Rafiki to learn that one. Something that I have learned over my years as a community educator is to harness some of these same stories, and some new ones, to talk about big life topics that are hard to tackle like Healthy Relationships.
“There’s No Way I’m Kissing a Frog and Eating a Bug in The Same Day.” – Tiana, Princess and the Frog
Why is it so hard to talk about healthy relationships with young people? How do we know what to say or how to say it correctly so that the information sticks but still allows room for the young person to find their own path? Are we afraid of the questions that might be asked? It’s a lot to grapple with. We worry about saying the wrong thing or looking like a fool when we don’t know the answers to their questions. In this way, we are very much like Tiana when these conversations come up, “there’s no way!”
“I Can Hear You, But I Won’t”- Queen Elsa, Frozen II
I feel like I must be honest here (thanks Pinocchio), when I first heard this quote, I thought it was so ridiculous. That is, until I thought about how teenagers tend to “hear” the adults in their lives. It’s how we all were when we were teenagers, hearing but not necessarily listening. Sometimes even actively choosing to disregard the information coming our way. Although, that doesn’t mean that the information doesn’t sink in. This is why it is important to have these conversations surrounding healthy relationships in small and frequent doses over time.
Ultimately, if we aren’t engaging in these conversations with open minds and non-judgmental perspectives, the young people will go elsewhere for their information. Do we really want them learning about relationships from television, movies, social media, and their friends without any input from us? That’s a scary prospect. I would much rather push through the discomfort, fear, and anxiety to have open conversations with them. I think as caring and healthy adults in their lives, we owe it to them to make sure they have access to good information and an opportunity to ask us questions instead of turning to Tik Tok.
“The Miracle is You, Not Your Gift, Just You”- Abuela, Encanto
Most healthy relationship conversations focus on your relationships with others, specifically romantic relationships. If we start there, we are missing a huge piece of the puzzle. To be in a healthy relationship with others, you, first, must be in a healthy relationship with yourself. You have to spend time with yourself to determine your own likes and dislikes, your own dealbreakers and must haves in relationships. You must be rooted in who you are—not just what you do or what you are good at but who you are—all of you. Are you adventurous or are you more of a homebody? Would you want to be in a relationship with someone who helps you come out of your shell, or do you really like your comfort zone? Would you like to be in a relationship with someone who takes care of you, or are you more independent and want to be able to take care of yourself? Do you want to be in a relationship with someone who makes you their whole world, or would you prefer that you both are able to have your own separate lives that overlap a little? Only you can answer those questions and if you don’t have an answer to those questions, you should probably spend some time thinking through them. Your relationship with yourself comes first and is ultimately about honoring and valuing the miracle that is you.
My favorite thing about Encanto, besides absolutely everything about it, is the quote above. Throughout the movie, each family member is trying their best to be perfect, to give back to the family, to protect the Encanto, to be deserving of the miracle and in doing so, they lose themselves. They each become so focused on perfection that they only see value in their gifts. Luisa is under enormous pressure, Isabella feels the weight of always having to be perfect, and we can’t even talk about Bruno. It isn’t until they all lose their gifts that they realize their value was never about their gifts or abilities. Their value and worth comes from simply being because value and worth aren’t earned, they are innate.
Everyone has value and everyone is worthy of respect, dignity, caring, and love. Relationships should not be based on a transactional process: “they did this nice thing for me, so I’ll do this nice thing for them”, or “they were mean, so I’ll be meaner.” We tend to get stuck in this perspective that we have to do everything and be everything in order to deserve love, compassion, and kindness when, in reality, we don’t need to earn those things because we are already worthy of those things. The miracle is us, not our gifts, talents, abilities, accomplishments, actions, or words; the miracle is you, every part of you and that should be respected and honored by ourselves and the people we allow into our lives.
“Hi There! My Name is Dug. I Have Just Met You and I Love You!”- Dug, Up
Oh Dug! So adorable! Also, a dog and probably not the best role model for engaging in healthy relationships.
When we are talking about healthy relationships, I want to be clear that this is not just about romantic relationships. This is about all relationships, including those with your family, your friends, your coworkers, your romantic partner, and all other people you interact with regularly. Most of these conversations leave out all these other relationships, but I have witnessed some friend relationships that exhibit a lot of the same unhealthy traits you would typically see in a romantic relationship. It is important to widen the scope of this discussion to include all relationships.
Before you enter into a discussion about healthy relationships, there are a few things I want you to keep in mind:
- Be honest like Pinocchio. You may not have all the answers and that’s ok, just tell them that. Tell them the truth, because you both deserve it.
- Be non-judgmental like Belle. Don’t go in with pre-conceived notions and try to not judge them, especially if they are being honest and vulnerable. Treat their honesty with respect and dignity because they are worthy of that and do not have to earn it! Remember that it is not a lecture. This is a true discussion and their point of view matters.
- Be playful like Mufasa. It’s ok to laugh and joke during these conversations. These conversations can be awkward and difficult so lighten up the mood from time to time (this is why I use Disney whenever I can).
Most of all, during this discussion and throughout your relationship with the young person, model the healthy relationship traits. They will take their cues from you because whether or not they say they are listening, they are.
Instead of reinventing the wheel and writing a massive list of healthy and unhealthy relationship traits, I want to direct your attention to research and articles that already exist. Here are a few of my go to articles (some may need a little editing depending on the developmental age of the young person):
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201301/50-characteristics-healthy relationships
Some people are internal processors and need time to digest the information before they can discuss the topic so I’m a big fan of giving the young people these links or print outs of the traits listed in these sites so they can look back at them later if they have any questions or want to think through it without others around them.
“Everything The Light Touches”-Mufasa, The Lion King
All lists about healthy relationships will mention something about boundaries but creating and maintaining boundaries is much easier said than done. Most people are afraid to set up boundaries because they don’t want to hurt the other person. But if that person does not respect your boundaries, aren’t they hurting you?
Boundaries are not about hurting other people’s feelings and should not be used as manipulative tactics. They are truly meant to protect ourselves from the characteristics, actions, or traits of someone that cause us pain or harm. Some of our boundaries are the same across the board no matter who the person is (“we don’t talk about Bruno”). Other boundaries are person specific (maybe this specific person isn’t allowed to call you at certain times) or even situation specific (maybe you want your friends to talk to you differently when you are at work than when you are at home or school). We all have different boundaries that we have set in place, the point is that no one should make you feel less than or wrong for having boundaries. Do what you feel is right and stick with it. Also, I don’t know who needs to hear this but “No.” is a complete answer.
“Some people, they’ll never accept him, but some will and he seems to know how to find the good ones.”-Grandma Paguro, Luca
Not everyone you meet or even have a close relationship with is meant to be in your life forever, especially if those people are not treating you well and not respecting your boundaries. If you find yourself in a relationship with unhealthy traits and patterns and setting up boundaries is not working for you, you may want to think about distancing yourself from that person. You do not have to cut them out of your life forever, but a little distance and time can help you heal and create stronger boundaries; it also signals to the other person that you are serious about your boundaries and that you expect to be treated with dignity and respect.
These conversations can be awkward and difficult, but they are so necessary and important and if we as healthy adults can model healthy relationship traits and engage in these conversations with the young people in our lives, it will make such a huge difference.
Authored By: Libby Woolverton
Libby Woolverton is the Non-Residential Program Director at Our Friends Place (ourfriendsplace.org) and serves as the Chair of the Metro Dallas Youth Committee. She works with youth in high schools, after school programs, and colleges as well as staff and faculty that impact youth in our community.
Libby earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and a Masters of Education in Counseling and Student Affairs from Texas Christian University. She worked in student affairs at two universities before returning to Dallas in the nonprofit sector first building a prevention and education program at a rape crisis center and eventually finding her way to Our Friends Place to build the SOAR to Success outreach program.