- Did you notice what kinds of things Estella, Horace, and Jasper had to do to survive? What were they?
Caregiver Note: This is an introductory question to help ease your teen into conversation about the movie. Often it’s hard to talk about such topics out of nowhere even for adults. For this reason it will be best to start with an open-ended question to start getting your child talking. Your youth may observe the stealing, lying, and running from police but they may also identify more behaviors that perhaps you did not notice. Regardless of what they list, this is a great sign that proceeding with the conversation will be okay because they are getting involved in a conversation. Try to use open-ended questions as much as possible, as this will open space for conversation and prevent them from the one-word response loops teens rely on to avoid intimacy and conversation.
- Why do you think Horace and Jasper started to steal?
Caregiver Note: This is another introductory question to start the conversation with your teen. It’s important to acknowledge that these children were not stealing to be mischievous or fun. They were stealing for survival. Food, water, shelter, and clothing are all very important components for survival while relationships with others and social belongings may come up soon after for emotional needs. Since Horace and Jasper, and eventually Estella, don’t have family connections to provide these things for them they must find a way to get what they need to survive. So they steal food and money, squat in a condemned building, and build elaborate disguises to find anything else they may need like information. Since adults are not seen as trustworthy or competent that places a lot of barriers to safe relationships they can form with others so they are very much stunted with personal relationships outside of their small group and pets. For this reason it makes sense the children (and eventually, young adults) steal and avoid reliance on others to make ends meet.
- Has there ever been a time you had to do something not-so-great to be safe?
Caregiver Note: This question may be difficult but is a good one to ask. Remember to bring your poker-face to this conversation as your child may tell you about some very hard experiences. They may not be so forthcoming and may keep this part short, but if they do start to tell you about themselves it is important to remember that just as they feel on the spot discussing these hard memories, they will be watching your reaction to see if you will still love and care for them as before. Remember to listen calmly without judgement and keep an open mind ready with curiosity to approach your child’s past.
- What kinds of situations make it hard to ask for help when you need it? How can I help you feel comfortable asking for help now?
Caregiver Note: This is another question that may leave your child feeling vulnerable, so it’s best to let them lead the conversation and get comfortable with awkward silence. Sometimes silence may even mean your teen is thinking about the question and it may take them longer to respond to the question now that we are talking less about the characters and more about them. That’s quite alright, as we are getting them thinking about the connections between communication and behavior and that alone is a huge win!
- What were the stages of grief that Cruella listed?
Caregiver Note: Shockingly enough, Cruella actually listed the stages of grief very well, with the exception of her addition of “revenge.” This shows that the Cruella narrating this story has had quite a bit of time to process her childhood/young adulthood and at least started to acknowledge parts of her own grief. For our children, large emotions can be hard to identify. As Dr. Daniel Seigel says, “You’ve gotta name it to tame it.” If children do not have connection to the emotions they are experiencing, they will not be able to honor those emotions and integrate them into themselves as healthy young adults reaching acceptance. This subject can be difficult for caregivers because we don’t like to see youth suffer and want to avoid it. However, grief is a very human experience and the best thing a caregiver can do is help their teen feel less alone while they move through grief rather than letting it build up and explode later.
- How does Cruella express her grief? What could have helped her grieve towards acceptance rather than vengeance?
Caregiver Note: I really feel for Estella in this movie as someone who has worked with kids with trauma. While it’s not great for her to take this path and become a villain, she certainly comes by it honestly. In such a short amount of time Estella is abandoned by her biological mother, bullied hard for being unique, encouraged to hide who she is, loses the only mother she has ever known, blames herself for her mother’s death, is mentally/emotionally/financially abused by her biological mother, takes on the ghosts of her mother’s mental health as her own, and all this without a caring adult to help her? That’s a hardcore ACEs assessment score without having to essentially raise herself. Estella really has so much against her, so not having someone to reaffirm that becoming “Cruella” isn’t the answer to such an intense life it’s understandable how she could have chosen to become Cruella. Estella could have been better helped by having a larger support system from her adoptive parent, having other supports through childhood, having more supports in her school system, and having her pain and emotions acknowledged and honored rather than hidden, much like her bi-colored hair.
- How can I be there for you when you are going through hard things?
Caregiver Note: This is another discussion point that your teen should lead. Every child is different in how they express grief, whether they are loud, boisterous and attention seeking like Estella or quiet and overly compliant like Horace or Jasper. However, if a child has been removed from the family of origin (permanently or temporarily) we can always assume that deep down that child is carrying an immense amount of grief. As much as we wish there was a magic wand or potion that could make all that pain go away, that doesn’t exist. For this reason a caregiver should be prepared to help your teen come to a state of calm when escalated, feel validation and acceptance for these strong emotions, and be given space to process through these emotions as many times as needed. The pain won’t go away entirely, but over time with acceptance that pain will heal and won’t hurt as hard when stroked by memories. Like a scar, the memory can become a testament to your teen’s strength and resilience rather than a tattoo to label and criticize if given the space to air out and loving words to treat.
- Why does Estella allow herself to “die” and become Cruella?
Caregiver Note: Throughout the film Estella was made to feel that there was only good and bad and there was no in between. This is sad as, we know, Estella was often driven to make hard choices to survive that aren’t so black and white. Had Estella had more support from a trauma-informed parent she may have realized that her choices did not have to define her and that, in reality, her adoptive mother would not have been as disappointed in her as she internalized. Cruella is the result of this dangerous dichotomous thinking and why Estella felt she could not live.
- Did Estella really have to become Cruella and copy her biological mother’s choices?
Caregiver Note: At the end of the day, Estella made a lot of mistakes in her youth… but if we were honest with ourselves none of us were saints in our formative years. Making mistakes is a part of growing up and usually does not label us into adulthood. I mean, imagine the worst thing you did growing up. Take off the rose colored glasses. Did you smoke weed? Did you sneak out to see a boyfriend or girlfriend? Take the parents’ car on a joy ride? I’ve taught foster parent classes for years and during one class about trauma I always allowed my participants to anonymously submit the “craziest” thing they did as teens, and I can tell you they are doozies! But did any of these crazy acts label them as stoners, thieves, or anything else into adulthood? Often they did not. It does not help our decision making, though, if we lack a strong, caring adult in our lives that can help us navigate such blunders and make better choices for the future. Children and teens often will rise to our expectations, good or bad, like Cruella so it’s important for a caregiver to remember this when they respond to misbehavior.
- Was there ever a time where you felt you could never “go back”? How can I help remind you that you aren’t defined by your choices?
Caregiver Note: Allow your child to lead this part of the question. This may even be too hard for a one-time conversation and that’s perfectly fine. Some things you can do to help your child, even if they can’t vocalize their needs, is to be mindful of how you respond to misbehavior. Where do you set the bar for behavior? Is it too high sometimes? Do we tend to expect our children to know the rules intrinsically or are we taking time to explain the rules and why they exist? Do we tend to label our child as “bad” or by the behavior they display at their worst moments? How much attention do we pay to the good choices? Part of good parenting includes a lot of self-assessment of how we act and respond to our children’s communication through behavior. It is not a sign of weakness to take time to re-evaluate our own actions and behavior. In fact, it is a strength!