Warning: This article contains spoilers for Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out
A month ago, I wrote about how Pixar’s newest movie, Soul, made Emotional Intelligence (EI) accessible for kids. Writing that article got me thinking about another Pixar movie, Inside Out, which may be the most Emotionally-Intelligent kids film to date. Not only does the film introduce core concepts of EI, but it also engages with the nuance of the subject in a way that remains entertaining. I believe this movie provides a great opportunity for parents to start a dialogue with their children about recognizing their emotions, identifying complex emotions, and understanding the importance of emotions like anger and sadness.
Perhaps Inside Out’s greatest achievement is its ability to take an abstract, complicated topic (how the brain processes and utilizes emotions) and make it fun for parents and kids alike. The first way it makes emotions fun is by color-coding and personifying them. Anger is red and fiery. Sadness is blue and dour. Joy is bright and bubbly. If you’re familiar with Hoppy & Poppie, then you know this is something I find especially useful for teaching emotional self-awareness to toddlers.
Additionally, Inside Out uses work from neural researchers and scientists to inform the design of its interior world. The concept that we attach emotions to memories is represented physically by the memory orbs that become color coded and can even change color as we age and gain new perspective on our memories. The movie speaks to the role of emotions and memories in shaping the people we are through the “personality islands” and “core memories.” By attaching physical manifestations to these abstract concepts, the film provides a way to visualize how these different ideas play out in our inner lives.
For parents, I recommend trying a drawing activity with your child. Ask them to color-code different emotions and to think about what their own emotions look like. Try playing out different scenarios that are highly emotional and see what your kid comes up with. My Emotion Wristbands are color-coded in order to create that association between colors and emotions and Yale’s Mood Meter is another great example of this.
One of the most prominent takeaways from Inside Out is its celebration of sadness. At the beginning of the film, Sadness is depicted as the foil to Joy. Everything that Joy wants to accomplish, Sadness wants only the opposite. But as the movie progresses and Joy and Sadness are forced to work together, Joy discovers what Sadness has to offer.
When Bing Bong loses his imagination mobile, he is understandably upset. Joy wants to move on quickly and keep the adventure going, but Bing Bong needs time to cope with his loss. Sadness sits down with him and shows her power for empathy by acknowledging his emotions. This whole scene is a great example of EI and a lesson in the power of empathy and compassion as well as a defense of sadness. We do so much in our lives to avoid sadness and present ourselves like Joy, but making the time to find an outlet for sadness, anger, and fear is part of EI.
Another great example comes at the end of the movie when Sadness and Joy work together to get Riley’s hockey memory back into her personality. With a new perspective on that memory, Riley is able to see how compassion from her parents and her teammates transformed her mood from sadness to joy. It’s this combination of emotions that gives the memory the emotional weight to become a central part of her personality.
An activity you can do with your kids is to ask them what they think about mixed emotions. How can someone feel happy and sad at the same time and can they think of any examples from their own life where they felt more than one emotion at once? Using the previously-mentioned Hoppy & Poppie Emotion Wristbands can provide a concrete way for children to become aware of simultaneously feeling more than one emotion as they choose to wear one or more of the specific wristbands to express their inner feelings in the present moment.
Inside Out provides a way to introduce people to core concepts of EI in an entertaining way. When each emotion is first introduced, their biological and sociological purposes are also introduced. Joy says, “Disgust keeps you from being poisoned physically and socially” and does the same for Anger and Fear. This puts emotions that are often perceived negatively into perspective and helps explain why they exist in the first place.
Many of the interactions throughout the film are high in EI. After Riley has an outburst at the dinner table and everyone’s temper gets the better of them, her father shows his EI by giving everyone time to cool down. He asks Riley if she’s ready to discuss what happened and when she doesn’t respond, he gives her more time to interpret things for herself. What could have made this interaction even better would be an initial apology from him for losing his temper, but overall, it shows a great way to address moments of familial conflict.
Another great example is the scene where Riley’s mother thanks her for being her “happy girl” through all the changes. Prioritizing the appearance of happiness over expressing how we’re truly feeling is something many of us do internally. In Inside Out, this created an unfair expectation that Riley would not only weather all the changes being thrown at her, but also do so with a smile. It lead to Riley feeling pressured to feel a certain way and only made her reaction to not feeling that way even more explosive.
Though my website and work is primarily focused on teaching EI to babies and toddlers, I have personal experience raising children to adulthood. Inside Out focuses on the inner experience of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. For this reason, I think the movie is best suited to addressing the particular anxieties and emotions of that “Tween” age group as the movie is centrally focused on the fear of change and the pain associated with having to grow up and leave the person you once were behind.
When Joy says at the end of the movie, “Say what you want, but I think it’s all beautiful,” she perfectly sums up the thoughts of someone with high EI. As we grow, our emotions become more nuanced and our perspective changes with experience. We come to realize that joy comes from a willingness to accept that our lives encompass all emotions and they’re all equally valid and beautiful.
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