I recently watched Disney Pixar’s newest movie, Inside Out. The movie surpassed my expectations and has my counselor-self excited at the steps Pixar has taken to try to educate children and families about emotions and personalities. Movies rarely provide equal amounts of education and entertainment, but Inside Out accomplishes both by taking an abstract concept and making it more concrete. The movie takes place inside the head of a young girl named Riley during her move to a new state and introduces five different characters who take turns at the center of the control board. Emotional development is rarely the premise of a movie, but Inside Out has journeyed into uncharted waters and started a conversation about emotions. Allow me to explain some of the things I took away from the movie:

We all experience a wide variety of emotions daily. The five characters introduced in the movie (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust) correspond to five of the six basic emotions researched by Paul Eckman that have been found to exist in different cultures. The sixth basic emotion is surprise but was left out of the movie. This means that the characters in the movie represent, at a basic level, the emotions that people all across the world experience daily. Eckman’s research has been widely used, and he was even consulted throughout the creation process. What results is a movie that is on point describing the basic emotions experienced by human beings. Emotional experiences impact a person’s perception of the world, shape the memories of the past, and impact interactions in the present. In short, emotions are almost always impacting a person’s life and experience of the world. In short, helping a child to understand their emotions is an important task, and parents would do well to use some of the insights this movie provides. The development of emotional intelligence is crucial.

Personified emotions shed new light on an abstract, difficult concept. Perhaps one of my favorite things about the film is the fact that emotions are given a personality and a face. I have yet to find any characters that take emotions such as anger, fear, or sadness and create an entire character personality based on the single emotion. Never before has there been such a concrete way to talk about emotions, which often feel abstract. In my office, children sometimes have a difficult time describing their anger or fear. The characters ofInside Out teach about the different emotions and provide a way for children to understand their feelings more concretely.

Personifying emotions will also allow parents to engage in conversations with their children in a new way. It allows for a more concrete discussion about a child’s emotional experience and provides a common language from which the discussion can be approached. Parents might be able to use questions such as “Which emotion is operating your control center right now” or “What is the fear/anger voice inside your head saying to you”. Fear made me laugh during the movie when he came up with a list of all the possible scenarios of what might go wrong during Riley’s first day at school, and yet there is some truth in that depiction of the character. Using that example of Fear, parents might be able to help their children come up with their own list of all the things their brain is making them worry about.

Every emotion has an important role to play. Inside Out teaches the importance of each individual emotion and validates the difficult emotions that children might have trouble expressing. The emotions are portrayed for what they are, not positively or negatively. All too often, I hear parents say something like “Don’t be sad” “You don’t need to be afraid”, or “Calm down; stop being so angry.” These types of statements devalue the emotional experience of the child and cause confusion. Emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness often get a bad reputation due to statements like this and are seen in a negative light. I often here parents in my office talking about how they wish they could shield their children from experiencing sadness, anger, or worry, but there is a problem with this way of thinking because children need to experience difficult and uncomfortable emotions to learn more about themselves and how to handle the world. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely shield a person from difficult emotions because we live in a sinful, broken world where disappointment and heartache are guaranteed. Part of the reason trophies are handed out to every child at a sporting event is to shield the child from feeling a difficult emotion, but this actually shields the child from being able to learn and grow from those experiences and causes problems later in life when the child is approached with more difficult life events. Experiencing disappointment during childhood begins to lay the foundation for how a person will deal with and move past disappointments in the teenage and adult years. This movie beautifully portrays that each emotion has its own role to play and that each emotion is important for what it is.

Feeling sad may be uncomfortable, but sad is not bad. For me, one of the most touching parents of the movie was when Joy realized the purpose and role of Sadness. For most of the movie, Joy makes her mission to keep Sadness away from the control board and the memories, but she comes to understand the importance of Sadness and her role in connecting Riley to others when she feels down. Sadness leads to a deeper connection with others. There is a noticeable shift towards the end of the movie where the role of Sadness really shines. Children often have a hard time expressing their sadness, more so than emotions like anger or fear. Most kids just do not want to feel sad because feeling sad is equal to feeling bad. However, sadness is a vital emotion for children to experience and understand. Teaching a child how to embrace their sadness (or any difficult emotion for that matter) rather than avoid the feeling will lead to more well-adjusted child who is able to navigate the challenges of life. In the movie, Sadness was able to connect empathetically with Riley and change a difficult memory into one that included receiving love and support from family and friends.

A deeper understanding of emotions leads to a higher level of emotional intelligence. Parents, please do not write off Inside Out as a simple children’s movie. This movie provides a concrete way to discuss an abstract concept and teaches several important lessons throughout which are highly worth pondering. If you have not seen the movie yet, check it out, and keep these things in mind as you watch it. Children benefit from learning about their emotions, and Inside Out does a fabulous job of teaching about them while providing true entertainment. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

By: Amanda Paben, LPC