Playful Parenting: Bluey as a Model of Child-Centered Play
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

You may or may not yet be aware of Bluey, a television show designed for preschool children. Bluey is an animated series about the playful adventures of a family of blue heeler dogs. The show premiered in Australia in October 2018 and in our home in the summer of 2020, and we absolutely love it.

In graduate school, I learned about the integral role of play in how children process emotions and work through the many challenges they face. Children need play. It is often their only outlet to express the feelings they cannot put into words. Play helps children learn how to share their inner life, regulate their emotions, and heal their wounds. 

In an episode called Daddy Putdown, Chili (Mum) goes to a baby shower and leaves the girls in Bandit (Dad)’s capable hands. Bluey is stuck on missing her mum. Bandit pulls out all the games in an effort to distract Bluey from her feelings. The games only take her mind off them for a little while. Seeing that Bluey is still struggling, Bandit gets down on her level:

Bluey: Please, can you tell her to come back?

Bandit: Okay. [dialing] It’s just that she was really look forward to this baby shower.

I don’t understand it. Why would you want to watch some stinky baby have a shower?

Bluey: Daaad! That’s not what a baby shower is!

Bandit: Yeah, it is. Mum and all her friends go into town and give some dirty baby a wash.

Bluey: That’s not a baby shower! You don’t really think that, do you?

Bandit: Well, then, what is it?

Bluey: It’s a party for a lady who has a baby in her belly!

Bandit: Really?

Bluey: You know that.

Bandit: Are there presents?

Bluey: Yeah! But they’re all for the baby.

Bandit: Ohh! What presents does a baby want?

Bluey: Oh, I don’t know. Like bibs and rattles and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and onesies.

Bluey: Oh, yeah. Babies love onesies.

Bandit: And are there games?

Bluey: Oh, yeah. I think so. Like Guessing the Baby Name game and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and Pregnant Lady Obstacle Course.

Bandit: Well. There you go. It’s ringing.

Bluey: Wait. Hang the phone up.

Bandit: Oh. Okay… Hey where you going?

Bluey: I think I thought of a game.

Just then, Bluey’s face lights up and she runs off. The show follows her into another room where she reenacts the evenings events, role-playing the mother and casting her younger sister Bingo as her daughter. She coaches Bingo to be sad when she climbs into her cozy coupe to head off for the party. She has all her little dolls set up in a circle for the baby shower and rushes in apologizing for being late. She explains to her dolls that she was late because “Snowdrop” was sad that she had to leave. She then plays out the baby shower. When she returns home in her cozy coupe, she emerges from her play ready to spend time with dad.

I could go on about the many valuable lessons for children and parents packed into these short episodes. If you want to see a mom hit the limit of her frustration tolerance, re-center, and reengage with her kids – watch the episode Sticky Gecko. My personal favorite is Sleepytime, when Bingo dreams about being a big girl… in space!  At one-point in the dream, she flies up to the sun and perches on a nearby planet, taking in the sun’s light. After basking, she says, “I have to go, I’m a big girl now.” She then hears her mother’s voice say to her, “Remember, I’ll always be here for you, even if you can’t see me, because I love you,” with the majestic musical theme Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets reaching a climactic crescendo.

The thing is, Bluey is not just a children’s show. It is a show that reveres the small moments, fills the minds and hearts of children with wonder and imagination, is packed with meaningful life lessons, and can be inspirational to parents and children alike! In another post, I may write about the significance of the portrayal of an engaged father-figure in children’s television, but that’s for another day. It is truly amazing what they manage to accomplish in just seven-minute episodes. Most importantly, Bluey is an homage to the power of play.

Let Dragons Be Evil
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

The heroic protagonist fights the evil dragon and rescues those in mortal danger. We are attracted to these stories and the excitement of the challenge. It can be a source of hope when we struggle in our own battles to see the stark victory of good over evil. In the last thirty years, many children’s stories have drifted away from these themes. Our legends are less legendary, the line between the heroes and villains has become blurred.  But there’s a developmental reason that we need exaggerated all-good or all-bad characters in children’s stories. Children need to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad, to develop their conscience, and it starts in these extremes.

The hope is that child-logic, which tends to categorize in black-and-white terms, is outgrown by adulthood. As the brain develops, it becomes more capable of discernment and critical thinking. With that comes the ability to recognize the multifaceted reality that no one is truly all-good or all-bad. However, the all-good and all-bad characters of our childhood stories help us as adults develop the extreme constructs from which to evaluate others in a more nuanced and compassionate way. Without them, there are no moral absolutes we can no longer appreciate the difference between virtuous and vicious behavior. In a General Audience in 1999, John Paul II predicted that a society with no moral framework would end up in a state of confusion. He said, “Evil exerts a frightening power of attraction which causes many types of behavior to be judged ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’. Evil then grows, having devastating effects on consciences, which become confused and even incapable of discernment.”

There is an attractive element to retelling the story of the Disney villains in a light that makes them seem more human. These characters become less of a caricature of evil and much more relatable. Perhaps the adults who grew up watching Disney movies felt a sense of pity for the misunderstood “bad guy” or wanted to find a way to redeem the parts of themselves or close others that they saw in these evil characters. I know I did. I imagined that the evil sultan Jafar of Aladdin, while ambitious for the throne, was really out to protect Jasmine from a thief and a liar. I reversed the hero and the villain in this and many other stories growing up to try to make sense of the good and bad in my own story.

I am still extremely sympathetic to a good redemption arc, but I have come to realize that redemption only occurs if we retain a sense of what is good and bad. To suggest that all people are all good all of the time is simply untrue. It does not make space for the terribly evil actions that ordinary people can knowingly, or unknowingly, commit. I have had my utopian fantasies where I live in a world where every person feels completely understood, loved, and valued as they were created. Seeing individuals in my family long for that kind of affirmation, I too long for them to receive it. I want to believe that it is possible to get there. I want to believe in the inherent goodness in every person. But to get there, we can’t ignore the reality of evil. To get there, we have to recognize the truth of each person’s capacity for both good and evil. We must become aware of the good and bad within us and reorient ourselves to the good, again and again. We cultivate a sense of morality in ourselves and our children by encouraging growth in faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We tell them stories where the hero defeats the dragon, to give them hope that they can, with God’s grace, overcome the darkness in their own minds and hearts. Because the truth is, the Savior has already won and His kingdom, while not yet in its full glory, is established. So, we fight for the good so that we and those we love can inherit a place in this kingdom.

Image: Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johan Konig, c. 1630

A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and woman enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.

Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy. 

Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy: 

Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger.  The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway.  As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog. 

In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience.  Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity. 

When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.   

If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted.  If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard. 

If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help.  By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully.  In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” 


Dr. Emily Dowdell, the Latest Therapist to Join the RWPS Team

We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Emily Dowdell to the RWPS team.  She brings with her an exceptional training background, solid Catholic formation, and unique clinical experience.  Dr. Emily will be seeing patients at our main office on the West Side of Cincinnati.  She recently sat down with us to share a bit about herself. 

Q:  Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m Dr. Emily Dowdell. I’m originally from Rhode Island, born and raised Catholic.  I am currently married with three boys under four years old.  I earned a bachelor’s degree in multimedia communications with minors in film studies and theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. After college, I returned to Rhode Island where I worked as a barista, rock climbing instructor, dog walker, trivia hostess, and freelance graphic designer while building my own wedding photography business. Just as my photography business took off and I had booked twenty-three weddings for the year, the Lord had other plans… He introduced me to the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University in Virginia. 

During my doctoral training in psychology, I worked in a variety of settings. My first experience was providing social skills training to youth and adults with severe autism in a community integration program. I then went on to work with adolescent girls, providing groups and individual treatment in a residential addiction program through Phoenix House. I spent a year focusing on diagnostics and assessments at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, a private psychiatric hospital in D.C.

For my internship and postdoctoral years, I was a fellow at Riverview Psychiatric Center the primary state hospital for the state of Maine. While there I had the opportunity to work with both civil and forensically committed individuals with more extreme psychiatric conditions. I facilitated groups, provided individual therapy, and offered psychological testing.

I went on to work with the CatholicPsych Institute in their Rhode Island office providing individual therapy and mentorship. There I became the Director of Assessments, offering psychological testing for diocesan and religious discerners.

Q:  What inspired you to become a psychologist?

I was fortunate to participate in Franciscan University’s study abroad program in Austria. While staying in an old Carthusian Monastery, I had the opportunity to study philosophy and travel to many spiritual pilgrimage sites. I learned about Pope Saint John Paul II’s philosophy of the human person that inspired Theology of the Body and read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Learning about the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God was huge for my own self-understanding in early adulthood. When I heard about the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at DMU and how their program is designed to integrate the science of psychology with a Catholic view of the human person, I was very intrigued. Finally, I had found an opportunity to learn how to help others learn about and cooperate with their innate dignity.

Q:  What does it mean to you to integrate the practice of psychology and the Catholic faith?

My faith informs everything I do and how I see the world. It’s important to acknowledge that every approach to psychology has philosophical roots and an understanding of what it means to be human at its core. The Catholic vision of the human person offers a more holistic foundation, incorporating the person’s mind, body, and spirit. I want to see and work with the whole person, so it gives me a more balanced perspective when one aspect of the person’s life is out of sync. When working with clients who are or have experienced significant pain and suffering, my faith provides meaning. It anchors the work and gives me the hope I need to continue moving forward. My faith provides me greater clarity, orients me, and gives me a framework to better understand my clients. I ultimately entrust the Lord with the care of my clients and pray that they are receiving what they need at this time to move forward, toward becoming who God made them to be. 

Q:  What types of patients and difficulties do you treat?

Over the course of my training and experience I have provided individual, group, family, and marital therapy. I am most in my element working with individuals (adolescent through older adulthood) as they navigate a variety of challenges including: depression, anxiety, grief and loss, adjustment related issues, post/peripartum disorders, relational issues, vocational and identity concerns, trauma-related disorders, substance use and other addiction, and personality disorders.

Q:  How would you describe your approach to therapy?

I approach therapy primarily from a relational perspective, meaning I focus on building a relationship with my clients. In terms of practice and conceptualization, I integrate different theories and tools from psychodynamic schools of thought (Nancy McWilliams, Lorna Benjamin, Peter Fonagy, Edward Teyber) and evidence-based treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness. Regardless of the specifics, therapy always comes back to the individual. As we build our relationship, we will establish goals, and I will select the most relevant approach that suits the person and his or her individual needs.

Q:  What do you like to do for fun? 

For fun, I like to spend time with my three kids and husband. We enjoy spending time outdoors together and going on little adventures. I also enjoy knitting.

To learn more or to make an appointment with Dr. Emily, please call 513-407-8878.