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Oregon Family Magazine

Superhero Role Models

06/01/2019 ● By Sandy Kauten
Superhero and other popular culture films and television shows are at an all-time high when it comes to popularity, ratings, and revenue. They provide great entertainment value but can they also provide educational value as well?

As a clinical psychologist who uses superheroes and other fictional characters in my work with clients with depressions, anxiety, and PTSD, the answer to this question is an absolute “yes.” Many children might never have learned how to understand or talk about their mental health. However, seeing how fictional superhero role models process their mental health difficulties can serve as a model for children to understand their own emotional experiences as well. In fact, pop culture has already been shown to be helpful with teaching children proper conflict resolution skills, how to establish healthy behaviors, as well as how to look out for and report sexual abuse.

In addition, recent research studies also find that creating meaningful connections with fictional characters can help people to find a sense of belonging after being bullied or rejected. In this sense, a child who had experienced bullying, for example, may relate to a fictional character, such as Peter Parker (Spider-Man) or Harry Potter, who had also experienced bullying. In seeing these characters going through a similar ordeal, children who experience these struggles may find themselves feeling less alone, as well as more compassionate toward others who are also going through similar experiences. Furthermore, people who had experienced trauma, such as a tragic death or abuse, might initially feel disconnected and isolated in their experiences. However, finding fictional characters with similar traumatic origins, can help that individual to feel less alone after experiencing trauma.

In therapy, fictional characters like the Avengers, Harry Potter, and Wonder Woman can also be used as role models to help children better understand their mental health. This can be accomplished by initially helping the children to understand the fictional character’s own experience first. For example, many children might easily identify that when little Bruce Wayne (Batman) witnessed the death of his parents at a young age, he must have felt scared and very sad. The children might then have an easier time understanding and talking about their own experiences of loss and grief. By seeing how their favorite superhero or other fictional character was able to learn from their painful experience and find their own superpowers, children can learn how to understand not only their own mental health struggles but also how to look out for others who may need help as well, essentially becoming a kind of a superhero in real life. Capes are optional. 

Dr Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist and the author of Therapy Quest (May 7th 2019), a revolutionary self-help book which combines therapy with an interactive fantasy quest. For more information go to: