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Life Lessons from Disney?

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Guest blogger pediatrician Dr. Gwenn says Disney movies can help you talk to kids about tough topics.


Pediatrician Dr. Gwenn says: With the startling news yesterday that Senator Ted Kennedy has a malignant brain tumor, cancer is on the minds of most people today, including our kids. Very likely your kids will have questions, as mine did today at breakfast. Kids find "brain tumors" among the more frightening things that can happen in life - even more so than "cancer," it seems. My daughter, 13, had some great and tough questions about how a person can prevent cancer, like: Is this his fault somehow? and Will it hurt when he dies? And all this before my morning coffee!

Keep in mind that cancer has a way of striking close to home at the most unexpected of times. We learned that a few years ago when my dad was diagnosed out of the blue with prostate cancer. He's doing great now, but that diagnosis and treatment period was very challenging. I turned to one of the top experts in child psychiatry, Dr. Paula Rauch, MD, Director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) Program, to figure out how to talk to my kids about cancer and death --and Disney movies were one of the surprising things she recommended.

Disney movies have a wonderful way of providing something for everyone. but are sometimes criticized for content that may be too overwhelming for children - parents dying, natural disasters, and sickness in a friend or loved one. But there are important life lessons to be learned here. For example, after watching Bambi, my oldest daughter (then age 5) told us that Bambi's mother was now gone, but that Bambi would be OK because his daddy and Flower were around to help.

Dr. Rauch says, "Rather than 'protect' children from loss-related content, think of these movies as opportunities to discuss these topics with your kids. It is not protective to exclude children from the reality that people get sick, and that people and animals die. When parents 'protect' their child in this way, they only ensure that a child's first experience with loss will be more overwhelming."

Learning to handle bitter life moments is essential for savoring and appreciating the sweet. Disney's use of humor and grace to portray the more fragile and difficult aspects of life provides us with a blueprint for managing such aspects of our own lives. So next time you feel the urge to fast forward through a "tough" scene in a show, sit on the remote, hand out tissue, and allow your family to experience the moment together. As often as art imitates life, life will eventually imitate art -- and someday having watched that Disney movie together will help all of you enormously.

For more tips on talking with kids about cancer, click here. And for more from Dr. Gwenn, click here.

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