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More Than a Movie: The Parenting Opportunity of “Inside Out”

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If you haven’t heard already, there’s a new Pixar movie out called “Inside Out.” One of the great things about being a parent is the opportunity to include learning in everyday activities with kids – like seeing a movie together. “Inside Out” is an example of this. The movie offers ample opportunity to discuss with our kids the role of emotions in our lives. We get to experience the outside changes that are occurring in Riley’s life with a move to a new city and we experience what is happening in her brain at the same time. Anger, Sadness, Joy, Disgust and Fear are all personified as characters that hold the controls while she goes through her life’s adventures. Viewers can participate in major changes going on in Riley’s brain as she develops new ways of thinking as a tween-ager and lets go of some of her childhood memories. The movie raises important questions about how we perceive our emotions, how they impact the choices we make and ultimately the life we experience. It opens the door to dialogue at all ages if parents seize the chance. Here are some considerations as you experience and then reflect on the movie with your children. If you haven’t already seen the movie – spoiler alerts ahead!

Reflecting as a Parent

The movie reaches its climax with a powerful sadness when Riley loses some of her core happy memories. This speaks directly to a parent and child’s experience of developmental changes. We are elated, for example, when our toddler walks for the first time. But we often don’t discuss and perhaps bury or ignore the sadness that goes along with the milestone. I remember my child’s struggle to walk. There was endless cruising around furniture and falling down. I remember a room full of adults cheering on my toddler to work hard, “You can do it!” And I remember the pudgy baby face needing me then but not needing me as much after walking began. I do appreciate the muddy, bright seven year old standing in front of me. But I also remember every age and stage with both happiness and sadness. I miss the baby and the preschooler who will never return. And so part of truly understanding our child’s development is the acknowledgement that there is a letting go process and the sadness that goes with it.

  • Think of a significant developmental change in your child’s life. What emotions did you feel over those developmental changes?

  • In what ways did you deal with sadness or other challenging emotions in that process?

  • Can you think of other ways you could support yourself in anticipation of future changes?

RELATED: Support your child's social and emotional development with our grade-by-grade guides.

Reflecting with Young Children

Though this movie depicts many intellectual concepts, such as the land of abstract thought where the feelings morph into two-dimensional figures as Riley’s thinking progresses, young children will view and understand it literally. They bring the asset of an expansive range for pretend thinking so they will appreciate the highly imaginative adventure. One seven year old described it this way, “I loved the movie but it was sad because the little girl loses her imaginary friend. There are little people who are in Riley’s mind who control how she feels.” Here are some questions I might ask a young child:

  • How did the movie make you feel? Sad? Excited? Joyful? Why did you feel that way?

  • There were times of intense sadness. Why, do you think, Riley felt sad? Why did you feel sad?

  • Do you remember when and how Riley began to feel better? How do you help yourself to feel better when you are feeling sad? Share some ideas like hugging a teddy bear or cuddling with Mom or Dad

Reflecting with Middle School Children

Emotions play a significant role in tween-age children’s daily lives. Because it is a time of great transition, they may often feel misunderstood and retreat into their own world in order to deal with their changing perceptions, social environment and bodies. In the movie, Riley is twelve years old and her feelings of disappointment and disassociation with her parents may be a highly relatable theme for this age group. Use the viewing of this movie as a significant opportunity to achieve better understanding of your child’s hopes and challenges:

  • Riley, based on anger, disgust and fear, decided to run away but she fell into trouble and ended up back at home. What other choices did she have in that situation?

  • What helps you when you are feeling misunderstood? Who will support you when you are sad? Or frustrated? Or hurt? Or angry?

  • How can experiencing those feelings help you better understand friends and classmates? What perspectives might you share with them?

Reflecting with High School Teenagers

The theme in the toddler years is “I can do it myself.” That same theme returns in the teenage years paired with a lot more capability and autonomy. Though they may at times feel ready for adult-level decision making, teens logical brains have not yet fully developed. As a result, they need lots of dialogue to debate the ethics of situations and the consequences that may result. They need to be allowed to make low risk choices so that they experience for themselves the consequences and then talk about their thinking processes. Teens need to know that they can trust their parents to listen with open minds when they are ready to talk. Try asking the following of your teenage viewer:

  • When have you made a decision that has impacted all members of our family? How did you feel about the decision? How do you think we felt?

  • What were the consequences? Did it help us grow in our relationships or did it hurt some of our relationships? If it hurt, how did we work on healing and moving on?

  • How do you deal with your own strong feelings? What do you do to express them and then how do you cool down before making an important decision?

Parenting From the Inside Out

Becoming mindful of our own complex of emotions and how they affect our choices raises our self-awareness. If we intend to become models of emotional intelligence, then naming our emotions out loud and being honest about them is a good place to start. “How are you, Mom?” said E. “Oh I’m fine,” I sigh knowing that it’s a loaded sigh filled with much more than “fine.” If we are modeling self-awareness, we have to admit when we are sad, irritated, frustrated and more. And then, because we are held accountable to our emotions by our little ones looking up asking how we are, we must find ways to express those emotions constructively. “Mommy is feeling anxious. I’m going to sit and breathe for five minutes. Can you play quietly on the floor now? It will help me calm down.” In addition, we all have patterns from our own childhood that serve as our default mode if we are not thinking. So reflect on what behaviors you would like to keep and what you would like to change. Ask, “Do these actions truly align with the values and lessons I want my child to learn?” Raising your self-awareness can help you break unhealthy patterns and learn new, better ways of using your emotions as guides for compassion and growth. Take advantage of the opportunity this film has created to discuss the emotions we all have. It could give you insight into a world beyond your sight and deepen your self-compassion and empathy for your child.

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