Lauren Patton, PsyD, a child psychologist at Children’s National Health System, discusses children’s emotions using Pixar’s “Inside Out” as a guide.
Parents often have questions about how they can better understand their children. Your toddler may cry endlessly and nothing seems to calm them. Your preschooler screams at the top of his lungs when his sister takes his new toy. Your daughter, on the cusp of puberty, quickly becomes moody and quiet. What exactly is going on in your child’s brain ruling their interactions and moods? You may barely understand it, so how can you expect them to have self-awareness?
Disney Pixar’s latest animated sensation, “Inside Out,” provides a guide to how brains function. As in the movie, your brain serves as a headquarters for your emotions. Early in life, your brain begins to form connections and reactions based on your relationships with caregivers, friends, and experiences in the home, school, and community settings. The movie may help you, and more importantly your child, to better understand those complex, and sometimes pesky, things we call emotions.
The movie’s main character is an 11-year-old girl, Riley, who moves with her family from a friendly Midwestern town to San Francisco. Like most of us, she is guided by her emotions. While she appears excited for her move, she immediately finds her new environment to be completely different from what she knows. Her new city dwelling is small and dingy. The local pizza joint only serves broccoli pizza. She cries in front of new classmates. As a result, she struggles to adjust to her new life and her emotions go on a rollercoaster ride.
Here are a few things to think about and discuss with your family after seeing the movie:
What are your child’s “Islands of Personality”?
Riley is defined by her interests and passions. In my working with children, I’ve observed their “islands” are usually friends, family, video games, and the latest iPhone. How do your children define themselves?
Happiness and sadness often work together.
The prominent emotion Riley appears to experience is Joy. Her happiness typically wins over sadness, although she struggles to adjust initially. Her memories are tied to her strong emotions. Riley recalls happy memories of playing hockey, but then feels sadness that her new town San Francisco doesn’t have winter sports. Your children may experience similar strong emotions during changes in their lives, and it is good to remind them that talking about how they are feeling is important in helping joy to win more often than not.
What is the role of anger in your life?
Many times, kids feel or express anger when what they are feeling is really pain or sadness. There are times your child would rather feel mad than sad, and their anger appears more noticeable. Sometimes we must allow ourselves to feel sadness in order to help release anger or frustration. For Riley, she started to become angry when things were not going her way and she became increasingly upset with her family. Riley began to feel better when Joy observed Sadness comfort another character (by listening and echoing disappointment). In order to move forward, children often need time to process their sadness and feel heard and understood by a parent or caregiver.
Anxiety/fear can protect you.
Anxiety is a natural part of life and is instinctual at times. During caveman days, you needed fear in order to have that “fight or flight” response in case a big bear chased you. Anxiety can at times help your child to perform better in sports or become more prepared for a big test, but if allowed to dominate, it may interfere and do so in a BIG way.
Feeling your emotions is not a bad thing.
Even negative emotions like sadness, anger, fear and anxiety all play an important role in making you, well YOU. As adults and parents we should not tell our children how they should feel; which is part of the message in the film. Riley’s mother and father put pressure on her to always be upbeat. We often send messages to our kids about our expectations without even realizing. When they are sad we try to fix it, and when they are scared we tell them everything will be ok. "Inside Out" reminds us that listening to our kids and allowing them to experience their emotions will give them the necessary tools to become well-adjusted adults.
The movie is full of reminders that growing up may mean learning when to let go, to experience life to its fullest, and feeling the highs along with the lows. Sometimes, movies intended for children, have hidden adult messages as well! "Inside Out" teaches us that growing up can be difficult and it is not always easy!