Watching children whizzing around the house with a cape flapping behind them or dressed in an all-in-one Lycra outfit as they try to save the world, is a pretty typical sight for most parents. Superheroes have a special place in the hearts of youngsters and even when they grow up some can’t let go of their fantasy figures. Blockbuster superhero films continue to take millions at the box office, fans flock to conventions and even Dubai has a hugely anticipated Marvel Superheroes Theme Park under construction.
Many look up to superheroes as they fight evil and stand for good. As a kid, pretending to be a superhero can make you feel fearless, out of the ordinary and ultimately just plain good as you help people in need. Who doesn’t want to be an adored hero?
Without even realising it, acting as a superhero can help kids develop superpowers of their own to help them cope with the challenges of life. Psychologist and psychotherapist Francesca Moresi, managing director at The Ambrose Clinic in Knightsbridge, London (susieambroseclinic.com), believes that superheroes can give kids fantastic guidance.
‘They can have a good influence on children and teach them to support others or allow them to find their strengths, develop morals, and generosity,’ she explains. ‘Identifying with superheroes helps children to find the courage to deal with the real situations in their life. Superheroes are protectors who fight against villains and the division between the two is strong and clear. Therefore kids learn to distinguish what is good and what is bad and, identifying with the hero, they can discover their values.’
Francesca says the characters allow kids to be daring and express the braver parts of their personalities while at the same time acknowledging their vulnerabilities and limits. Superheroes might be courageous, but they certainly aren’t perfect and they all have their own problems. ‘This is very important because it is what allows kids to stay grounded without getting lost in an imaginary world,’ she explains.
‘Identifying with these characters becomes helpful for coping with reality and accepting it comes with its flaws.’
In fact, it seems that superheroes aren’t just called on to protect galaxies and fight the bad guys – they’re now being used to help children and adults with their problems right here on planet Earth.
Dr Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist in the US and is one of many who uses Superhero Therapy in her teachings and with her clients (superhero-therapy.com). ‘I use superheroes and characters from science fiction and fantasy and other ‘geek’ culture media in evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT),’ Dr Scarlet explains.
‘Superhero Therapy uses examples of these characters to promote positive changes in patients with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disorders.’
Children, as well as many adults, often have a hard time talking about and understanding their own feelings but Dr Scarlet says that being able to relate to a superhero, such as Batman, can show children that they’re not alone in their struggle and can motivate them to face their fears and make a positive change. By asking a simple question such as “what would Batman do in this situation?”, children can potentially be inspired to make a big difference.
‘When I’ve worked with children in the past, we’ve sometimes worn superhero costumes when doing exposures as part of therapy,’ Dr Scarlet says. ‘Exposure refers to facing someone’s fear. For example, if a child has school anxiety, a likely exposure would be to go to school. Sometimes wearing a superhero outfit or even having a superhero symbol to remind the child that they are courageous, just like their favourite superhero, can make a big difference in that child’s participation and willingness to face their fear.’
Being young can seem like a powerless time, and superheroes stand for more than just wearing pants on the outside of tights for kids. They represent justice and integrity; they defend the innocent and face their enemies even when the odds are stacked against them because it’s the right thing to do.
Aamnah Husain is a psychologist and parenting expert for Dubai’s play centre Fun City (funcity.ae), and agrees that imitating superheroes can be a very valuable exercise for children.
‘Through the process they are able to use their imagination and creativity. It can introduce concepts of good and bad, of helping the weak and using your strength for good,’ Aamnah says. ‘Superheroes can be like companions and imaginary friends for children and by acting like them they are able to explore the world through their eyes. By imagining themselves in the guise of their favourite hero, children may also feel a degree of power and control that they otherwise lack because of their age.’
As with any activity, Aamnah says it’s important that parents use caution and assess how superhero play is affecting their child. She suggests looking at your child’s favourite superheroes and checking that their values are in line with the ones you wish to teach your kids. ‘At times superheroes can treat women in a derogatory manner, or they may have great wealth,’ she explains.
‘Children could assume these are prerequisites for being a superhero so you may want to redirect their attention to the better aspects of their nature. And always ensure that your children’s viewing age is appropriate.’ And don’t worry about superheroes teaching your children that violence is good. Dr Scarlet says research studies have so far shown that connecting with a fictional character like Batman, Superman or Harry Potter actually reduces the risk of violence and is more likely to make kids more compassionate.
‘When we hear about the suffering of another character, the empathy centres of our brain react, making it more likely that we’ll respond with kindness to people in a similar situation in real life,’ Dr Scarlet explains. ‘While bullying and violence can happen anywhere at any time, it seems that identifying with a fictional hero is more likely to reduce violence than to increase it.’
Dr Scarlet says superheroes are important to us even as we grow into adults. ‘They give us a sense of purpose and they remind us of what our values are, what we stand for,’ she explains. ‘We know through numerous research studies that people with a strong sense of purpose, people who honour their values are less likely to develop a mental health disorder and are more likely to overcome anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Therefore, I think that by inspiring us to become the very best versions of ourselves, superheroes are essentially teaching us to be more resilient.’ So just what life lessons can children learn from the superheroes they idolise?
Triumph over adversity
Superheroes don’t always have it easy. Batman’s parents were murdered, Superman’s home planet was destroyed and Professor X had his spine shattered with a bullet, but they still manage to keep us star-struck. ‘The truth is we’ve all experienced some painful times as it’s part of life,’ she says. ‘Children often don’t know this and feel alone in their pain. Seeing how a superhero they look up to was able to overcome their struggle can inspire hope and motivate them to follow suit.’
The Avengers did it, the X-Men did too and the Fantastic Four wouldn’t have seemed right if they hadn’t. The fact is, some of the great superheroes of all time weren’t afraid to work together as a team. Fun City’s Aamnah says, ‘Characters like the X-Men show that sometimes there is strength in numbers and that teamwork can be instrumental in succeeding at your goal. It can teach children that everyone has different skills to offer.’ And Francesca, director at the Ambrose Clinic, reminds us not to forget about the trusted handy helper. ‘Batman’s sidekick Robin teaches that you don’t need to be the front man to be successful or to do good; we’re all destined to different roles. Everyone needs a sidekick, even a superhero, and it’s absolutely normal to seek help.’
Dressing up gives kids the ability to transform into their favourite heroes. It can help kids to feel stronger and braver at a time when they feel vulnerable – and instantly other kids know to ‘respect the suit’. Aamnah says it can even introduce the concept that the way we dress is associated with different jobs and environments and at Fun City, they embrace it. ‘Every year, we hold a signature event called Fun City Fancy Dress Fun that welcomes our little guests dressed in their favourite characters. The event is a lot of fun and also augments their development by providing an environment of pretend play to encourage their imagination, boost their self-confidence and public speaking skills, as they stage in front of many parents. With over 1,000 children participating last year alone, the success of this event is proof that parents do encourage their children to dress up and they love it.’
Even when things look hopeless, Superman will fly into the situation and when Batman is outnumbered, he stands tall, but bravery isn’t always what we think. ‘One thing kids can learn from superheroes is how to be courageous,’ Dr Scarlet says. ‘Courage doesn’t mean that someone is not afraid, on the contrary, courage means standing up for what is right despite being afraid. Kids can learn that superheroes stand up for what they believe in and face their fears even when they are afraid.’
With great power comes great responsibility…
Finally, celebrity life coach Sloan Sheridan-Williams (sloansw.com) says that superheroes are good role models for children because they are driven into action by the unjust nature of their society and their aim is to create a better future. ‘This inspires and motivates children to do what is right and stand up to that which adults class as bad influences or unacceptable behaviour,’ she explains. ‘Children can learn to stand up to bullies while realising that people who are purportedly mean are often living in the track of fear and are not as powerful as they may seem. Superhero culture also demonstrates to us that negative forces in our lives can be overcome with strength, determination, motivation and passion.’
And it’s something even parents can learn from. Dr Scarlet reveals that her favourite superhero is Storm from the X-Men comics. When Storm was a little girl, a plane that was shot down killed her parents and trapped her in the rubble. ‘Storm developed severe claustrophobia,’ she explains. ‘When she joined the X-Men this fear at times prevented her from being able to do her job. At one point she was trapped in a tight tube by one of her enemies and was completely paralysed by fear. However, when her friends were in trouble Storm was able to help them even though she was scared. Her courage and dedication to her friends was always a big inspiration for me. When I’m anxious or scared I ask myself “what would Storm do?” and I find my courage in the answer.’ It seems that even parents could do with an inner hero once in a while.
Anyone can be a hero?
The great thing about superheroes is that you don’t have to be born with special powers; plenty had help along the way. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive arachnid; Batman got himself a protective bodysuit. Celebrity life coach Sloan says these characters are an example to children that superpowers are not essential to be a hero. ‘They prove that the power of the mind is the most important thing in determining success and a positive outcome,’ Sloan says. ‘Such self-determination and unshakable belief in oneself is all that a real hero needs rather than to be born with special gifts.
This is also a lesson that no matter what their background or challenges they face, anything can be overcome if you’re focused and motivated to succeed.’ Thor gained his powers through merit, not from birth – it’s a mighty lesson in success.
No one is perfect
Superman had to steer clear of Kryptonite and Iron Man had an electromagnet to stop shrapnel plunging into his heart but it didn’t stop either of them being strong. Even in the world of fantasy, no one is perfect and everyone has their weakness, even those on the pages of comic books. ‘With strength comes great responsibility but even the strongest superhero has flaws,’ celebrity life coach Sloan says. ‘This is an important lesson to children that the key to life is the need for balance and the fact that nobody is perfect.
‘Superheroes are special because they overcome severe challenges by shifting focus and changing their perception of a difficult situation, and this teaches young people to face their obstacles in a similar way.’ Superman doesn’t let his weakness define him and even when Kryptonite is used against him, he somehow manages to find a way to free himself and regain his strength. ‘Children can learn to make themselves as strong as possible but also realise that when ‘enemies’ do know your weakness, you have to shift your focus from the negative to the positive and build a network of allies,’ Sloan says.
‘It’s important that children learn who to trust when sharing weaknesses and to not let them define who they are or who they could be.’