Helping Kids Feel ALL the Feelings -- Inside and Out!

06/25/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016
kristian sekulic via Getty Images

Pixar, popcorn, and psychology?!? Swoon!

I don't know who was more excited to see Pixar's latest animated film, Inside Out, when it was released on Friday -- me or my kids.

I mean, when a movie company consults leading neuroscientists and the folks at the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley so that they can accurately teach kids about their emotions, memories, and the inner workings of their brains.... well, let's just say they had this mindfulness teacher at "neuroscience."

(Nerd Alert: I, um..., I took notes during the movie. Because it was so good and I wanted to share with you how you could use this movie as a teaching tool for helping your kids understand their emotions. And also so my almost-nine-year-old could meet "Embarrassment").*

For those of you who don't have little kids and therefore have not been anticipating this film for months, let me provide a quick summary: Inside Out is about 11-year-old Riley, who has to move with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, which of course stirs up ALL. OF. THE. FEELINGS. These feelings reside in Headquarters (inside Riley's head); led by Joy, they work tirelessly to keep Riley safe and happy and healthy.

I loved these characters and the way the filmmakers depicted the inner workings of our brains in a way that little kids could understand.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that ALL of our emotions are important and necessary. Joy is initially really frustrated with Sadness, because she's so, well, SAD all the time, and she keeps bringing her annoying SADNESS to all of Riley's memories. Joy eventually discovers, however, that when Riley allows Sadness in, her parents come to comfort her. Her friends rally and support her. Sadness helps Riley be safe and happy and healthy.

What ARE emotions, anyway?

On a fundamental level, our emotions are a combination of thoughts and physical sensations that let us know that something important to our welfare is happening. Think about it -- every time you feel nervous or sad or elated or angry or loving or guilty.... it's because there has been some type of threat or reward to your physical, mental, or social wellbeing. Emotions prompt us to seek safety or avoid danger. We'd have a hard time living without them.

Which is what the cast of characters in Riley's brain discover when Joy and Sadness are lost deep within the subconscious, and Riley has to function with a limited emotional range. During their tour through Riley's head, Joy and Sadness (and the delighted audience), learn quite a bit about how the mind works.

Here's just a sampling from my notes of the cool things this movie will teach you about your feelings and your memories and your brain, and how you can talk to your kids about them after watching.

What do emotions look like?

By personifying emotions as colorful characters with distinct personalities, Inside Out makes abstract concepts concrete. It's hard for grown-ups to define "joy," let alone a six-year-old!

A helpful strategy to assist kids in understanding emotions is asking them to imagine their emotion as an animal, or a color, or an object. When your child is in the midst of a strong emotion, ask them, "What color is it? If it were an animal, what would it be? What would the animal be doing?"

It may be hard for our kids to tell us they are "angry," but they might be able to recognize when Joe the Stomping Rhino shows up! They can understand being red and having fire coming out of their head!

You can find some Inside Out coloring pages here and here -- encourage your kids to color the characters the way they experience them. What does YOUR anger look like?

(You can learn more about helping kids process emotions in this talk by Chris McKenna, Program Director at Mindful Schools: "Mindfulness, Neurobiology, and Children." Seriously, you can't resist that title.)

What are your core memories?

Inside Out teaches kids that they have certain core memories -- the most important, happy, terrifying, and significant events that have happened to them. These core memories shape who they are and how they react to the things that happen to them.

Ask your kids, "What are YOUR core memories? Why are they so important to you?"

Depending on your kids' ages, you could talk about how our memories essentially make us who we are. Without our memories, we wouldn't really have a sense of "self."

You can find a coloring sheet of Joy holding memories here, and a coloring sheet for an individual memory here. Encourage your kids to draw their core memories and share them!

Use it or lose it!

As Joy and Sadness tour Riley's memory bank, they encounter the janitors cleaning up the unused memories (janitors = glial cells, for you neuro-nerds). They wipe out some of the memorized presidents that Riley no longer thinks or cares about.

We know that our memory is a "use it or lose it" system. Our brains are NOT computers, where every single memory is filed away for permanent storage until we are ready to retrieve it. Instead, unused memories are "pruned" away. You can use this example from the movie to teach your kids about the importance of practicing or "rehearsing" information that they want to retain.

And we can also talk about how, sometimes, forgetting is a blessing! Though we may envy people with photographic memories, they could be overwhelmed by so many memories! Those janitors do important work cleaning up the debris of the brain.

You need your sleep!

As soon as Riley drifts into sleep, her brain gets to work! Research tells us that the sleeping brain is very much an active brain -- reviewing the day's experiences and organizing information for long-term storage.

The crucial component to this is REM sleep (the dreaming stage of sleep). During their journey, Joy and Sadness enter a massive movie production studio, whose employees work with the material of the day to create both the banal and the bizarre of Riley's dream world.

Ask your kids about their dreams -- for all the talk of nightmares and fantasies, most of the content of our dreams is simply the content of our days. Ask your kids why they think dreams are important.

(Neuro-nerd note: we still don't have a complete answer to the question, "Why do we dream?" You can read a summary of the various theories here.)

Parents have those goofy characters in their heads, too!

I absolutely loved the scene in the movie when Riley begins to show some attitude and sass at the dinner table. We see her mother's and father's versions of Anger, Disgust, et. al., react to the perceived threats to their parental authority. It's a perfect way to help our kids understand that Mom and Dad have their own core memories and triggers and emotional patterns (neuro-nerds: this is called developing a theory of mind).

Perhaps the next time you get into an argument with your child, see if, once everyone has calmed down, you can replay what was happening in each of your heads. Why was Anger getting all fired up? What was Sadness feeling? What memories did this argument bring up? I'm just going to go out on a limb and suggest that our world would be a much better place if we could all do this type of reflecting.

"You can be ALL the emotions, you know."

I asked my kids what they learned from the movie as we drove home. My daughter explained that you need all the emotions, even sadness. "Joy needed Sadness," she said.

My six-year-old's response was lovely:

"I'm Joy, because I'm happy most the time.
But sometimes, you make rice and beans for dinner, and then I'm Disgust.
And sometimes I get mad so I'm Anger.
Sometimes I cry, so I'm Sadness.
And sometimes I get scared, so I'm Fear.
You can be all the emotions, you know."


*Just kidding. She knows her mindful mama does weird stuff like this.

This post first appeared on Sarah's blog Left Brain Buddha. You can follow Sarah on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.