'Inside Out' Movie Teaches Emotional Acceptance To Kids (And Adults!)

06/29/2015 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Just came from my daughters' first movie in a theater and it was the best one I could have chosen.  Keep in mind that I saw Frozen only under duress and dissociated for most of it, and I don't like kids' movies as a whole (except Dumbo), because of the scene when the mother sticks her trunk out of the jail and rocks the baby, which is a real tearjerker. I digress.  Inside Out should be required viewing for all elementary school and middle school kids, if not all people of any age.  There are wonderful lessons and conversations starters for families, especially if kids struggle with intense emotions, like Highly Sensitive Children or ADHD kids.  Note: there are a few mild spoilers below, which hopefully serve to illustrate what I think were some excellent take home points from a psychological perspective.

all smiles before the memory dump scene

All smiles before the memory dump scene

Inside Out teaches emotional acceptance, which is the essential idea that emotions need to be recognized and accepted, rather than suppressed and denied.  In the movie, 11-year-old Riley was always told to be her parents' "happy girl," so when she was grieving about moving across the country and leaving her friends and life behind, she thought she had to suppress her sadness and act only happy.  This backfired, and she was left angry, disgusted, and afraid.

The emotions in this movie are anthropomorphized, so joy is played by a joyous fairy-type of creature, sadness by a blue cylindrical mopey creature, and so forth.  All five primary emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger, are represented.  This is a wonderful way to teach the concept of emotional de-fusion, from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which means that your emotions are just your emotions, and not reflective of the true state of the world.  You need to notice them, accept them, and move forward.

In this movie, Joy kept trying to take charge and steer Riley toward acting happy, but if you watch the movie, you see how she learns that Sadness is actually an adaptive and useful emotion too.  In fact, all of the emotions are adaptive and important, and a human cannot exist without the full range of emotions.  When two of the emotions are not allowed to be expressed, the whole "control panel" for Riley's brain (or really her limbic system) goes dead.  That's like the apathy and detachment of depression.

Another wonderful point made by this movie is about the nature of memories.  Memories can be shaped by our emotions; if you are feeling depressed, all your memories can be colored with sadness, but when you're feeling happy, the same memories are colored with joy.  This is an excellent illustration of depressive bias, where depression makes people think that their whole life has been a series of failures.

Memory storage is also covered in Inside Out, and teaches kids about short term and long term memories, and what they call "core memories" which cognitive behavioral therapists would believe shape your "schemas," or ways that you view the world.  If you remember yourself playing with friends and smiling and laughing with peers, you will view the world as a friendly and safe place.  If you remember the time that a dog bit you out of nowhere, you will think of the world as dangerous and unpredictable.

Even dreams are explained in the movie, and it may be hard for parents to realize that kids probably don't understand the link between daily events and memories and dreams unless the connection is discussed explicitly.  Here, we see how Riley's embarrassing moment at school makes it into her dream that night, which turns into a nightmare of exposure and humiliation.

Riley's parents' emotions are also shown, with their own five emotions sitting around a console in "Headquarters," and in a funny montage during the credits, we even see the inner emotional worlds of random characters, like the "cool girl" in Riley's class who worries that she will be seen as a fraud.  This seems like a throwaway cute scene, but it is really eye opening for kids who think that maybe only a kid like Riley (not a typical "cool" kid) experience all this emotional ambivalence.

My 5-year-old is a Highly Sensitive Child and cried during some of these scenes, particularly the memory dump where the imaginary friend is jettisoned to get Joy back into Headquarters.  By the end though, she was happy, and, more importantly, she learned many valuable lessons about emotions.  Kids aged 4 and up can discuss lots of interesting topics after watching this movie, and a 3-year-old can also engage about these topics.  In fact, even my 22-month-old son started announcing his fears during the scary scenes ("Fire alarm!"  "Light flickered!"  "Robot!") in a loop, which surprised me, and I believe indicates that even a toddler understood that fear was being discussed.

Here are some good discussion questions for kids and parents:

1. What are some of your "core memories?"  Here are some of mine.

2. How come Sadness ended up being important?  (This is a great one; Sadness, when expressed openly, works to elicit compassion and empathy from others, which then leads to bonding and connection.)

3. Are some emotions bad?

4. What are some of your happy memories?  Sad memories?

5. What makes you angry?  Scared?

6. What are your "islands?"  (These were aspects of Riley's character, like "Family Island," "Hockey Island," and "Goofball Island.")  What do you think your siblings' islands are? Here are some of my islands.

7. What did you think was the saddest part?  The happiest part?

8. Some people have certain emotions that take charge more often than others.  So, some people are generally happier and some people are generally more scared of things.  Which of your emotions come out the easiest?  Here are the ones of mine that come out easiest. (For little kid: which of yours do you think are the biggest? Smallest?)

9. What are some ways to cope with anger?  Fear?  Disgust?

10. How can you express anger in a way that doesn't hurt anyone?  How can you express Joy in a way that lets everyone be happy along with you?  Etc.

This was a great movie and can't recommend it highly enough. It's like a year of therapy in one movie. Good work, Pixar!  Maybe I am a child movie convert now.  And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, I Wish They Had This Movie When I Was An Anxious Kid.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Pre-order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.