What Parents Can Learn from Pixar’s “Inside Out”

I’m going to go ahead and assume that most parents of young children in America have seen the recently released movie Inside Out, so I won’t bother yapping about spoiler alert. Like Disney’s Frozen, this movie depicting the psychology behind emotions and memory has taken us by storm. Unlike Frozen however, Inside Out has some major melodrama that I can get behind. Let’s put aside the fact that the main character, Riley, only had five emotions- Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. Obviously, we are capable of experiencing a huge range of different emotions; not just these five. But for the purposes of this blog, I will spare you all my critiques of how this movie didn’t get it right. Let’s move on to the ways that it nailed it.

The main theme that I took from this movie was what the psychological community calls emotional congruence. This term basically states that what you’re feeling (your emotions) should match what you’re presenting (your behavior). For example, if you’re feeling happy about something, you may smile or laugh. If you’re angry about something, you may furrow your brow or frown (or go sit in your closet and scream into a pillow… No? Okay, never mind about that one). Point is, when Riley goes into her new classroom and feels a normal, healthy mix of excitement and fear, nothing bad should’ve happened. She may have stuttered in front of the class, spoken too quietly for anyone to hear her, or felt a little nauseous at the presence of those feelings. Let’s also not forget the sadness that she feels at the loss of her former life. But what does Joy go and do? Banishes Sadness to the corner and tries with all her might to keep Riley the “brave and happy girl” that her parents need her to be. This is where all of Riley’s internal emotions start to go haywire- when what she was feeling inside wasn’t congruent with the situation with which she was faced.

Think about the way you may react to your child feeling sad. Is your automatic response to say “don’t be sad”? Even if that is said in a sweet voice and accompanied by a bear hug, it may not be the phrase a kid needs to hear. Instead of trying to will your child out of sadness, or even attempting to fix the problem, try doing what Sadness did in the movie. When BingBong was upset and Joy failed to cheer him up, Sadness, knowing how important it was to be allowed to feel sad, just sat with him and patted his back until he felt better and was able to move on. She didn’t try to reason with him or explain why he shouldn’t feel sad or tell him to get over it. She just sat with him. Next time your kiddo is sad about something, just sit (or lay on the floor) with him or her. This super simple action acknowledges your child’s feelings and doesn’t undermine his or her expression of, in this case, sadness. Just take a second and imagine how you would feel if your spouse or bestie or whomever told you “Oh, don’t be so sad” or “Goodness, don’t cry!” Yes, thank you friend, that definitely makes me feel better. Right? Kids are told that all the time! Now, this is all assuming that you know your child well enough to distinguish between her being ridiculously dramatic and her being genuinely hurt about something (even if it seems silly to you). Let’s make a pact and change our automatic response from “don’t be sad” to “I’m so sorry you’re hurting”. It’ll change your life. Okay, maybe not yours, but definitely your kid’s.

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