Cinema Therapy: Family, Loss and Disney’s Lilo and Stitch (2003)

For this Cinematherapy article, I knew I wanted to focus on an animated family film in honour of Children’s Mental Health Week earlier this month, but felt myself feeling pretty stumped over which movie(s) to start with. In the end, I decided to go with the Walt Disney Animation Studio film: Lilo and Stitch (2002).

For those of you who are curious, there isn’t any particular reason why I chose this animated film over the long list of others, both Disney and otherwise. Though I figured it would be beneficial to start with a popular film which people are aware of and that is fairly modern. That being said, I realise whilst writing this article that Lilo and Stitch is approaching it’s 19th year since release (which makes me feel very old) so maybe not completely ‘modern’.

In this post, for those of you who haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I will start by explaining what Cinematherapy is, and it’s benefits for us and our mental health. Then we will explore Lilo and Stitch, and figure out what lessons we can take from it with regards to improving our mental health and wellbeing. So, let’s get started.

What is Cinematherapy and Why is it Beneficial to Our Mental Health?

There are so many benefits of film on your mental health. These benefits have actually been utilized to create a strand of expression therapy called ‘Cinematherapy’, made popular by Dr Gary Solomon, which uses visual media as a tool to express emotion and heal.

The purpose of this series is to not only promote the beneficial relationship between cinema and emotional healing, but to take specific films and use each of them as a case study to breakdown which aspects of mental health they cover and what lessons we can take from them. Coming from a background education in Media Studies and now pursuing a career in counselling, it made perfect sense to combine these into something I think would be unique and fun to discuss.

Before moving onto our films, I want to discuss the benefits of watching movies. As covered in my previous article, there are so many of these, but some of the main aspects I think are worth discussing are as follows:

Escapism – The ability to be transported to another time and place can allow you to feel distant from your problems and take your mind off any anxiety you may be feeling about your real-life circumstances.

Emotional Transference – Being able to experience characters as they navigate challenges, both situationally and emotionally, can allow us to relate their experiences and feelings to our own lives and can sometimes allow us to learn lessons from the fictional situations that can help us. Though, with transference we also have to be cautious in case we inadvertently trigger ourselves from seeing something in a film that we share a negative connection with or feeling towards.

Catharsis – In the same area as emotional transference, movies can be used in order to allow us to experience catharsis, or emotional release, when we are in particular need. This can help us purge intense emotions such as sadness, anger or fear depending on the films we are watching. Studies on several genres have been done in the past but the most common discussed as having an impact on our mental health are comedy, romance, drama and horror.

General Self-Care – Watching movies can be used for generalized self-care, allowing you to relax and take some time alone to watch at home. It can also be good to see friends when going to the cinema, which is also beneficial as it allows some social interaction, which if carefully approached, can increase your happiness levels. Just be careful not to spend too much time in front of the screen as this can lead to you feeling lazy and low and if you’re going out to watch in the cinema be aware of your triggers if you’re prone to experiencing social anxiety.

Keeping animated films in mind for this post, I think it’s also important to pinpoint what specific benefits these may have for discussions around mental health. Firstly, I think it’s worth noting that animated films are arguably more likely to reach some of the largest varied audiences, due to appealing to both children and adults (be they parents or otherwise).

It’s also important that messages of positive mental health are embedded within these films as they are what we watch during our formative years. I can’t begin to say how many childhood films and TV shows I still hold close to my heart today. At the time it probably didn’t seem like it, but I can almost guarantee I picked up some habits from them over time without realising. If this is the case, then surely it’s better again to make sure some of the embedded messages are encouraging positive mental health and wellbeing.

Based on the previous articles in this series and what we’ve discussed above, I’m sure it will be no surprise that the breakdown of the movie will feature in-depth discussion on the narrative of character, so consider this your spoiler warning going forward. If you haven’t already seen Lilo and Stitch, then I highly recommend giving it a watch.

There was just one final thing I wanted to note on the film before moving onto our breakdown. Many Disney films have several takeaways and have created some huge discussions around the areas of feminism, sexuality and race, and whilst I respect and encourage these discussions, for the purpose of this article I’d like to focus more on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of the film. So, without any further delay, let’s get started:

I’m sure most of you are aware of the basic premise of the film, but for those of you who are not, I will provide a quick synopsis: Lilo is a quirky, lonely Hawaiian girl who is being raised by her sister Nani. Stitch is an extra-terrestrial genetic experiment whose main purpose is to destroy. Their paths cross and chaos ensues. Obviously that is a general overview, and the narrative is much more complex and layered than this, but it paints a picture hopefully.

However, the thing is, once you start to peel back the layers of this fun plot, what you see is actually a heartfelt story focusing on the themes of family and belonging, and a lot of that influences the character motivations and mental health.


Take Lilo as the primary example. Lilo starts out in this film seeming a little chaotic and ‘bratty’ as it were, but then we come to realise that this is due to her own insecurities about being left alone and forgotten. Her parents died in a car accident, she has no friends, nobody talks to her with the exception of her sister, and she is for all intents and purposes, labelled as a ‘weird outcast’.

This situation has such an impact on Lilo and her mood and causes her to lash out and make trouble, even being violent towards one of her peers at the start of the film. These are very real behavioural issues which many children can and do display when they feel isolated or they need to seek attention from their loved ones.

If you searched online for articles about Lilo and her mental health, you’ll see that many have speculated that the six-year-old shows prominent signs of those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Abandoned Child Syndrome. To clarify, I’m not really in the business of giving a diagnosis to characters from Disney films, or any film for that matter, but it is clear to me that there is much more going on for Lilo psychologically rather than just surface behavioural issues.

Lilo slowly begins to feel better throughout the film after she meets Stitch. She is no longer alone and has the one thing she always hoped for, a friend. From there on out, Lilo is focused less on her own feelings of isolation and more on bettering Stitch and improving his ‘goodness level’. Throughout this journey towards goodness, Lilo faces her own reflection in many ways. Her and Stitch are obviously very different on the surface, but deep down they both get upset over the concept of family or lack thereof. Lilo even recognises this similarity herself and explains that she understands why Stitch behaves the way he does, because she too has those feelings:

“I hear you cry at night, do you dream about them? I know that’s why you wreck things, and push me.”

One of the other lessons the movie teaches us is how to deal with the grieving process. This is explored through Lilo’s journey and explains how it is okay to lash out as a form of coping, but that through surrounding yourself with people you love, you can really help the process along. With the unconditional love and support of her older sister Nani, and the fun she has with her new friend Stitch, she is able to begin to mend a lot of the anguish she has at the start of the film.  


On the other side of this coin, Stitch is also a really interesting character to explore. He’s a literal genetic experiment built for destruction yet throughout the narrative he can be seen struggling with what are very real emotions due to his lack of a family or ‘greater purpose’. Whilst Stitch start outs as harmful and chaotic, it is soon clear that there is much more to him than this alone. Stitch’s need for family is met with Lilo’s ‘Ohana’, and he grows because of it, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.  

I think this is most clearly displayed through one of the more subtle scenes in the movie. During his original crash landing, Stitch immediately threatens a frog with his plasma guns, before being hit by passing trucks.  He is immediately aggressive and angry towards this other lifeform. Later in the film, this is contrasted in a scene where Stitch saves the frog from immediate harm, which is something he doesn’t seem to put any thought into, and is unthinkable of the earlier version we see of Stitch. This film explores the morality of good and bad through these scenes very effortlessly, and also the impact of family and what it can have on us.

The main impact on Stitch’s morality and his journey to becoming better, is his relationship with Lilo and his observation of her relationship with Nani. They may fight, argue and upset each other, but they are sisters, and they are there for each other. This becomes clear to Stitch as the film goes on, whilst he is also experiencing his own inner desire to have a family like Lilo, or somewhere to belong. This is something we can all relate to in our own ways.

“This is my family. I found it, all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

The above quote is delivered by Stitch at the end of the film, and is arguably my favourite of the entire movie (with the only possible exception being ‘if I gave Pudge Tuna, I’d be an abomination’ which I understand sounds like nonsense to those who’ve never seen the film). The above quote from Stitch summarises the entire message of the movie. Life is messy, and so is family, and it doesn’t always look like the polished version we see on TV all the time.

The thing that makes a family, a family, is the unconditional love each member gives to one another, despite how challenging it may seem at the time. By the end of the film Lilo’s family, or ‘Ohana’, includes three aliens and a secret agent/social worker, yet is still stable and full of love. Now I know the alien option is a bit far-fetched for all of us, but it doesn’t take away from the message that families come in all forms, biological or chosen, and that doesn’t make them any less special.

I’m sure I’ll cover family in a future post on this blog, as the link between familial situations and our formative years can have such a huge impact with regards to our mental health, but for now I’d like to leave it on that positive note above. We cannot control who our biological family is or where we come from, but it doesn’t mean we have no choice on who we get to call family. It’s an important lesson that took me many years to learn, and since I did, I’ve never looked back.

So that’s it for another cinematherapy post, but there will no doubt be more discussion of Disney in the future as realistically, Disney+ has been a beacon of light in this pandemic, and I just can’t help myself from re-watching.

If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about mental health awareness and training, be sure to follow my blog here. Have you seen Lilo and Stitch, and if so what’s your opinion? Is there anything I forgot to mention? Do you have any recommendations for next month’s cinematherapy? Let me know in the comments down below.

If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as and You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.

Published by AnxietyBear

Opening a conversation around the topic of mental health. Providing support and advice. Exploring personal experiences.

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