What 'Finding Dory' Gets Right About Raising A Child With A Disability, According To Family Psychologists

Although the movies aren't typically the best place to get parenting advice (Home Alone, anyone?), occasionally, there's a film out in theaters that actually contains some solid advice about raising a child — and more often than not, these movies are by Pixar. The animation giant is responsible for some of the most realistic, relatable parenting ever shown on the big screen, whether it's the frustration that comes with raising a moody preteen in Inside Out or the heartbreak over sending a kid to college in Toy Story 3Yet while the parenting-related subjects that the studio's previous films have tackled have been relatively lighthearted, storylines to make moms and dads go "aww" and hug their kids tight, Pixar's latest film, Finding Dory, doesn't shy away from dealing with a serious child-rearing issue — something that two family psychologists tell Bustle is done in a highly effective manner.

Although Finding Dory is mainly a comedy, centered around the silly, lovable Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and her quest to find her long-lost parents, there are parts of the film reminiscent of some serious dramas about parenthood. As Nemo fans will remember, Dory has short-term memory loss, an issue that causes her to easily and quickly forget her plans, her friends, and — where Finding Dory gets its plotline — even her parents. When Dory realizes, early on in the film, that she has a vague memory of her parents and must've lost them long ago, she sets out on a journey to find them, yet her mental battles impede her every step of the way. Throughout the film, she has flashbacks of her childhood, including one hugely painful scene in which her parents are seen sobbing when they think Dory is asleep, wailing to each other that they don't know if Dory will ever be able to manage on her own, without the two of them guiding her 24/7.

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It's a powerful scene, and, apparently, one of Pixar's most realistic. When I speak to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, a therapist who frequently works with families, about the movie, she tells me that Finding Dory's portrayal of parents dealing with their child's disability was "spot-on."

"I thought it was very realistic and it was a good depiction," says Dr. Maidenberg. "I think parents do secretly lie and have a hard time coping, but most try to nurture [their child] despite the disability."

For much of the movie and Nemo before it, Dory's struggle to remember, well, anything, is played for laughs. The audience is supposed to find it funny that Dory constantly loses her way and needs help remembering where she's going or why she's made a certain decision, and we do; Finding Dory is a funny, entertaining film full of quippy one-liners and amusing anecdotes that will make even the most stern-faced viewer let out a few chuckles. Yet unlike in NemoFinding Dory contains a few scenes like the one mentioned above that make it clear that, for all its unintentional silliness, Dory's struggle is no joke. When Dory makes yet another memory mistake, she beats herself up for being "such a Dory;" when Marlin gets frustrated with his friend for constantly messing up, the pain on Dory's animated face is heartbreakingly vivid. 

And while scenes like those, especially the ones featuring Dory's parents' worries over her future, might go over young viewers' heads, says Dr. Maidenberg, parents of children with disabilities will likely resonate. "For adults or somebody who has a child with a disability, I think that was really powerful," she says. "It was acknowledging that you can have a kid who thrives and does well, but it’s really hard on parents. They worry, they really worry."

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Dory's memory struggles are never more poignant than during the flashback scenes. In these frequent trips to the past, a toddler Dory is seen playing with her parents, a mother (Diane Keaton) and father (Eugene Levy) whose love for their daughter is evident. Yet they are shown to be frustrated, too, with Dory's already-apparent memory issues; although they patiently design tricks and devices to help Dory navigate the world, they clearly realize that Dory suffers from a severe problem that their support cannot fix. 

Dr. Teri Friedman, a psychologist who works with teens and adults, says that Finding Dory's portrayal of parenthood in that regard is "completely realistic in the best sense." Some parents unfortunately don't deal with their child's disability as well as Dory's do in the movie, Dr. Friedman explains; instead of "creating strategies for [Dory] to succeed," they get "angry, frustrated, and sad." Finding Dory presents "a realistic portrayal of what the best parents would do" in that circumstance, something that Dr. Friedman, as a parent herself, "found the most satisfying part of the movie."

Both Dr. Maidenberg and Dr. Friedman also commend the movie for how it handles Dory's own thoughts about her disability. Although the fish starts out frustrated with and mad at herself for having memory issues, she gradually learns that her disability can be an asset, too. When Marlin and Nemo get lost and think they're out of luck, they manage to find their way out by thinking, "what would Dory do?" — aka using creativity and determination, rather than logic or history, to get themselves out of a tricky situation. Hearing that her unique behaviors have proven valuable, Dory gains confidence in herself, and, as Dr. Friedman says, "realizes that her disability becomes a strength."

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"It's like the saying, 'you slay the dragon, you slay the hero,'" adds Dr. Friedman. "Getting rid of her memory loss gets rid of her guts, her passion, her whole identity."

And it was the values instilled in Dory by her parents that clearly helped her gain pride in her behaviors, no matter their uniqueness, says Dr. Maidenberg. "Dory learned from her parents to rely and trust on her instincts, despite her disability," she explains. "That led to her inevitable resourcefulness."

In other words: without the love and support of her parents, Dory wouldn't be the clever, creative, imaginative character that Pixar fans have come to know and love.

Images: Disney/Pixar; Giphy

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