A toddler careening to a halt at an electrical cord, a preschooler screaming at the top of her lungs when her ice cream cone topples, a girl on the brink of puberty who suddenly gets all moody and silent. What exactly is going on in our kids’ brains that governs their moods and responses?
The latest animated Disney Pixar movie Inside Out attempts to get to the bottom of this eternal parenting question. And, in doing so, the screenwriters have created a parenting manual for those of us who are blindly making our way through the parenting landscape, while trying to hold on to our ever-changing children.
Co-director and co-writer Pete Docter happens to be pals with noted UC Berkeley neuroscientist Dacher Keltner. They frequently discussed the difficulties of parenting adolescents, and Docter was especially concerned with what had happened to his once-joyful, now-sullen daughter Ellie as she neared puberty.
Their discussions ultimately formed the basis of the movie Inside Out, which offers a glimpse into 11-year-old Riley’s brain—where five emotions influence her behaviour via a colourful dashboard. Riley’s main “button-pusher” is Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), and her colleagues are Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (the scene-stealing Phyllis Smith). The five emotions work together, keeping Riley safe, friendly and, most importantly, happy. The narrative arc focuses on Riley moving from hockey-obsessed Minnesota to broccoli-loving San Francisco with her family. Sadness starts to colour some of her core thoughts and chaos ensues—leaving Sadness and Joy lost in the deep, dark recesses of Riley’s brain.
The film creators relied on real brain science and psychology to inform their ideas about how the brain works. And while co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen told me in an interview they let the story take precedence over the science, there’s still enough science in there to give parents a few lessons on how emotions work. The movie is filled with boring “teachable moments” and there are strong reminders that growing up also means letting go—and experiencing life to its fullest means feeling the lows as well as the highs.
After seeing the movie, here are some things to consider and perhaps discuss with your kids:
What are your kids’ “Islands of Personality”?: Riley is defined by her interests and passions, which include hockey, friends, family and having fun. When I asked my kids what their islands were, even my slightly taciturn 12-year-old was quick with his responses—friends, video games, camp, creativity, family. It was an interesting glimpse into their priorities and how they define themselves.
The role of anger, and what happens when anger is in charge: When Anger takes over the dashboard for a long period of time, it literally stops working. This is true of our brains, too. When anger takes over, the parts of our brain that can prioritize and be logical stop functioning, we cannot make rational decisions. The way the other Emotions solve this problem is the key message of the film. (Spoiler: Sometimes you need to allow yourself to feel sadness in order to help you release anger.)
Who’s in charge at your dashboard?: Joy is in control of Riley’s dashboard, but Joy doesn’t rule the roost for every character. When I asked my kids, “Who is in charge right now?” my daughter lost her temper. I asked her if Anger had taken over. I didn’t need to ask my husband who was in charge when he lost it over the kids’ backpacks lying around on the floor. This tactic is a simple, yet effective, way to discuss emotions with your kids (and maybe your partner, too).
How fear protects us: There was a point during the process of making Inside Out when Fear and Joy were the main characters, but Pixar changed it to feature Sadness and Joy. Fear still plays a role in keeping Riley safe as a young child, and fear is an important part of our lives—except when we let it take over.
Our memories connect us to who we are: Riley’s core memories are the engine to her personality and, while the film provides a basic concept of memory banks and how memories are formed, there’s a truth to it. Our memories—and how we perceive them—help form our sense of identity.
How Joy and Sadness often work in tandem: (Spoiler alert!) At first Joy doesn’t know why Sadness lingers around at the headquarters, but soon realizes that expressing sadness doesn’t take away from overall happiness—it can sometimes even enrich it.
Importance of active listening: At a pivotal point in the film, Joy watches as Sadness comforts another character by listening and echoing his disappointment. Joy’s inclination is to distract from pain, but she sees that suppressing it may not solve the problem. Allowing sadness to take over for a while can help the person move on.
Letting go is an important part of growing up: I bawled during the first few moments of the film as they show Riley’s progression into adolescence. Like other Pixar films, a sense of loss pervades the narrative, but the loss also provides closure and growth.
Emotions aren’t bad: Even “negative” emotions like anger, fear, disgust and sadness play an important role in making you a whole person. Del Carmen also told me in an interview that, when it came to anger, they wanted to show it was a state that caused people to take action—and sometimes that action isn’t well thought out. However, sometimes that emotion can make people work for change. As for sadness, it can connect you to who you are.
Parents shouldn’t tell kids how to feel: It’s a subtle message in the film, but Riley’s parents put pressure on her to always be happy (this gives Joy her impetus to be in charge). We often send messages to our kids about our expectations without realizing it. When they are sad we try to fix it, and when they are scared we tell them not to worry. However, Inside Out reminds us that listening to our kids and allowing them to experience their emotions is what will give them the necessary tools to become rational adults.
Mommy can cry her eyes out in a film for no good reason: I’ll admit it; I walked in with a wad of tissues and used every single one. I had one eye on the film and the other on my nine-year-old daughter who is ruled by Joy—although puberty is lurking around the corner. She’s on the precipice of adolescence and I don’t want to let her go.
Inside Out isn’t a perfect movie—My nine- and 12-year-old both found it slow in parts. But it seems to have struck a chord with audiences, especially with adults. It isn’t easy to grow up, and it isn’t easy to let go of things as time goes on. But Inside Out reminds us that sadness can live alongside happiness—and, in fact, provides us with a full life.
Now excuse me, I must have something in my eye. Where did I leave those tissues?