The Lion King is a wonderful movie, but we will leave the accolades for great characters and amazing songs to others. Instead, let’s review how this film can help parents talk to their kids about important situations and feelings. Keep in mind we do not propose that the Lion King has all the answers, but the movie provides many chances to break the ice on difficult emotional topics. Once through that door into a child’s mind and heart, the rest is up to you. Let’s look at two things: 1) Loss of a parent or loved one and 2) Dealing with grief or depression.
of a Parent
One of the most startling moments in movie history is the loud gunshot that signals the off-screen death of Bambi’s mother. It shocks and saddens in one wrenching moment. Clearly, it devastates Bambi, but the movie then quickly jumps ahead to his triumphant growth into a young stag. We do not get to see how Bambi deals with this loss, only that he turns out fine. Instead of this abrupt transition, the Lion King provides a more in depth look at to how Simba handles the death of his father, Mufasa.
After Mufasa’s death in the stampede of the wildebeasts, Simba must deal with feelings of guilt, loss, and abandonment. Unaware of his uncle Scar’s treachery, Simba believes that he is responsible for his father’s death. Guilt is sometimes common in children when they blame themselves for being bad or “acting up” before the death of a parent. Finding ways for them to express these pent-up feelings and frustrations can help relieve some of these unwarranted and self-imposed burdens.
A sense of abandonment is also a major challenge both in the movie and real life loss of a loved one. Simba’s loneliness is highlighted when Rafiki sends him on a desperate run through the night jungle in search of his father. Crying out for his father, Simba finally encounters a sky borne image of Mufasa. In an ethereal Obi-Wan manner, Mufasa reminds Simba of their family connection and the value of his life.
Depending on your philosophical or religious background, the conversation and comfort that Simba derives from the spiritual presence of his father may be of help when discussing death with a child. However, care should be taken to avoid the rush to immediate “It’s God’s will” consolations. There may be time later for such discussions, but right after a loss is usually not an effective time and may instead result in a backlash of resentment. Even if you do not have a particular religious belief, Mufasa’s message to Simba does contain valuable reminders that the legacy of a parent’s example lives on in a child.
with Grief or Depression
In addition to guilt, Simba suffers from grief and depression right after the death of Mufasa. A scene that captures the identification of depression occurs when Timon and Pumba find Simba wasting away in the desert. Certainly, this desolate physical setting is an appropriate reflection of this mind state. Coming upon the distraught Simba, his carefree friends note:
Timon: Gee, he looks blue.
Pumba: I’d say brownish, gold.
Timon: No, no, no. I mean he’s depressed.
Ignored in the early years of medicine, research has shown that children do suffer from depression. Depression and other forms of depression like dysthymia, can have a crippling impact on a child’s development. Early identification of depression in children may save years of turmoil and prevent some of the serious consequences of this illness. The fact that more young people (15 to 24 years) die from suicide than cancer, meningitis, HIV, pneumonia, or all of the other medical illnesses combined emphasizes the severity of depression’s threat to children.
Simba’s own depression establishes a context to discuss this disorder with children. Explaining the clinical signs and symptoms of depression to kids can be difficult. But Simba’s demeanor, loss of energy, and lack of interest as he drags through the desert provide concrete examples for kids to visualize. Understanding how depression affects other people can decrease a child’s feeling of isolation with this illness. Children with depression can be helped, and providing hopes for improvement is an essential goal in treatment.
Hakuna Matata is a memorable song that occurs during a montage of Simba’s growth from a cub to a young lion. The words of the song impart the message of “No Worries”. This song can be a useful tool to discuss anxiety reduction with very nervous or uptight kids. Thought stopping is a technique that can stop the downward spiral of worry. However, avoidance and not thinking about things does have its limits and possible negative outcomes. It is to the movie’s credit that Simba cannot ignore his own responsibilities to save his pride land. He must face his fears and confront his worse enemy at the end of the film.
Enjoy the movie. There is no need to sit your child down for a “talk”. But keep these tips in your back pocket, so that when an opportunity does arise, you can say “Remember when Simba…”
Vincent Ho, MD
Dr. Vincent Ho is a child psychiatrist, CEO of CYKE, and has three kids of his own.