Parenting with a PhD: Helping Your Kids Go “Inside Out”

By Kristen Berthiaume:

First of all, if you haven’t yet seen Pixar’s “Inside Out” with your kids – GO! NOW! It’s fantastic. Take tissues, though – it’s a tearjerker for parents. “Inside Out” is the story of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, who goes through some big life changes. Consequently, her emotions – which are actual living, breathing characters – go all out of whack. Transitions are likely a particularly emotional time for your child, too, so pay attention. Pixar, along with the neuroscientists they consulted, did an excellent job making abstract concepts like “feelings,” “memories,” and “imagination” concrete and visible to help kids get a
better handle on them. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust each have distinct personalities and style (bright green Disgust, voiced by the wonderful Mindy Kahling, looks and acts so totally over it). They live together at “headquarters” inside Riley’s head (Get it? Headquarters?) and control her words, thoughts, and reactions. At the beginning of the story, Joy, voiced perfectly by Amy Poehler (Just like Leslie Knope but on steroids), is usually in charge of Riley’s days and there’s a general feeling that things would be best if she was always in control. However, over the course of the movie, we learn that there are
important roles to be played by other feelings, too.

Here are some ideas for using “Inside Out” as a jumping off point to help your child learn and talk about emotions.

If you haven’t gone yet (or are going again): On the way to see the movie, talk to your child about feelings. What are different emotions he’s noticed in himself and others? How does his body feel when he’s angry/sad/happy/worried/etc.? Encourage him to pay attention during the movie to the different ways the main character feels and to what causes her to feel that way. Remind him to look at her facial expressions and to listen to the tone of voice she uses when she is showing those different emotions. Also, ask him to pay attention to whether anyone else in the movie also seems to be expressing various feelings. This last question is a leading one, I’ll admit – we clearly see the emotions of others in the film. But, kids don’t always pay close attention to the reactions of others, focusing more on their own. This kind of questioning can help them notice how others are feeling, which will eventually lead them to make more appropriate responses like comforting a friend, waiting until a parent is calm to talk, and using a soothing voice with a younger sibling who is afraid.

After the movie, ask generally what your child thought and use what she says as a lead-in to talking about emotions. What was her favorite part? Anything she didn’t like? What different emotions did she experience during the film? Notice if your child focuses more on Joy, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of “The Office.” Again, genius casting), Fear (Bill Hader, always wonderful), or Anger (Lewis Black – seriously, who else??). Ask her how she feels most of the time? How does she feel at home? At school? Keep this discussion light unless your child wants to go more in depth.

At home, pull out paper and art supplies like paints, markers, sequins, glitter (yes, I know glitter is the devil but we’re talking about your house – not mine), feathers, puff balls, etc. Ask your child to list his five most common emotions. Then, go through each one individually and have him draw, color, and decorate how that emotion might look. Have him give the feeling a name. If he looks stuck, ask questions like: What color is happy to you? Does happy seem like a boy or girl to you – or neither? Is it an animal, a person, or something else? What’s a name or word that reminds you of being happy? What kind of voice would happiness use? Characters could look human or might be animals or abstract forms.

They might have crazy, made-up names but encourage something your kid can pronounce and remember. This project may be too time-consuming to complete in one afternoon so feel free to have your child create one character a day and draw the discussion out over time. When you’re finished, put the pictures together to make an emotions book. Refer to your child’s emotions using the names he has picked out and look at the book together often, especially when he’s having a particularly strong emotion (or right after he has calmed down from one). Ask him what he’s like when each of the characters is at the control panel. Ask how you might be able to tell when he is sad, afraid, happy, etc. Be careful not to let your child use his emotions as an excuse for poor behavior – even if Anger is at the helm, your child still decides how to act on that feeling.

Emphasize to your child that all the feelings we have are O.K. and important because feelings tell us something about what’s going on around us. Talk about what happened to Riley in the book when some of her feelings went missing. How did she treat other people? What happened to some of her memories? For example, Sadness was gone so Riley expressed a lot of Anger. It’s very common for young children to mask their sadness by acting mad and disrespectful instead. Sometimes, the emotion you see is not the one your child is actually experiencing, which is all the more reason to help her learn about feelings and how they can be helpful to us. See if your child can explain why Joy realized that Sadness needed to be in control of Riley’s feelings sometimes. This is a difficult concept for kids to grasp but an important one. Ask your child what usually happens when she is sad? Hopefully, she’ll say that you or her teacher or friends comforts her. Ask why it is important that people sometimes show that they are sad. What can happen if we pretend to be feeling Joy when we are really feeling Sadness? Talk about how in the movie some of Riley’s most important (“Core”) memories looked like Joy but also had some parts that were Sad. In fact, the Joyful part of the hockey team memory wouldn’t have happened without the Sad part. Think together about memories that your child has and talk about the happy and the sad (or angry or scary…) parts of those. This will be particularly useful if your child has experienced loss of a loved one or pet. The memories may be happy ones but, like in the movie, they will be colored
by sadness because of the death.

Pixar has given us a great gift with this film. Making emotions concrete will enable children to better understand their own feelings and to express those in appropriate ways. “Inside Out” teaches children (and some adults…) that we don’t have to be afraid of our emotions – they’re normal and helpful. Yes – we still have to keep them in check so that we don’t go overboard but that’s why Riley’s emotions worked together – to balance things out. As parents, we hate for our kids to be sad. We often do whatever we can to distract them from feeling that way – sugarcoat bad news, give treats, change the subject. But, Sadness teaches us all that sometimes you just need to sit and talk with someone you love about a memory – even if it makes you both cry. Joy will return but it’s not always her turn to be at the control panel.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages seven and one, and four-year-old son.

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