It’s about time that a major film company made a movie that can truly help children psychologically.  Pixar seems to have done just that with the release of Inside Out. Even though edutainment is considered somewhat taboo in the film industry, Pixar has managed to turn a pedagogic lesson about how we process feelings into something really adorable and highly entertaining for all ages. We at  Digging Deep love this movie because it teaches the same thing we do— how to support our children’s emotional health by allowing them to express all their feelings.

Inside Out doesn’t merely touch upon emotional process as a backseat theme—it is the core storyline. But how do the filmmakers at Pixar make a lesson about how we express and process feelings work on the big screen?

First we are introduced to a cast of characters that live inside Riley’s brain. Riley is an 11-year-old girl adjusting to her family’s move across country.  By observing how each character—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust—responds to life’s experiences, we recognize how our emotions co-exist and each plays an important role in helping us record memories and move through life’s ups and downs.

At fist, Riley is frustrated, lonely, and acting out because no one understands how she is really feeling. This is partly because she isn’t putting her true feelings “out there,” but instead covers them up with attitude or anger.  Perhaps she does this because she doesn’t know how to express what she is truly feeling.  Maybe she feels she needs to act strong or be tough.  She may not even recognize her own fear or sadness within.  Or it might be possible that by age 11, she has already had her feelings ignored when she did express them, by being persuaded to “cheer up.”

Riley’s parents, like many parents, keep trying to reach out to her, but they don’t even give her a chance to embrace her sadness and move through it.  In encouraging her to move on, they are essentially denying her of her tough feelings and chance to get there. Can she find happiness without expressing her sadness?

What we learn from Inside Out is that happiness needs sadness and vice versa. When life throws really tough challenges at you, it’s important to feel your anger and sadness in order to pick up the pieces and be happy again. Riley’s way to get through her challenges is to finally express her sadness and be authentic—be herself.  She learns it’s OK not to be OK and that is a very powerful lesson we should all teach our kids from a very young age.  Both kids and adults need to know that we cannot truly heal emotionally and move on until we acknowledge what has been lost in our struggle.  How often do we miss this critical step of feeling the loss?

One of the biggest lessons of Inside Out is how we can best support our children emotionally: by letting them express how they really feel.  In the end, Riley’s parents simply hold her, allowing her tears to come.

I cried both for Riley and her parents, but also for me as a parent—how many times have I not listened for my children’s feelings? Maybe I have listened to what they have said, but failed to listen for what they truly needed.

As parents, we don’t need to “fix” our children’s feelings—in fact we can’t fix them. We just need to be there emotionally for them.  We have all heard this advice, but without seeing it right in front of us on the big screen, we have no idea how to do it.  Inside Out clearly shows us:  Just allow the feelings to come—don’t try to fix them, change them, judge them, or try to make them better—even if this means our own emotional heartstrings are tugged in feeling our children’s pain.

Congratulations to the entire Pixar team for encouraging our children to express all their emotions freely, even the difficult ones, which are so often suppressed. Thank you for helping us parents understand the importance of “just being there.”

Sheri Brisson
Sheri Sobrato Brisson is a brain tumor survivor who discovered the importance of self-reflection during her recovery. From her personal illness experience and a dozen years supporting families and children with serious illness, her life’s philanthropic mission is to empower families and children facing serious illness. She has started and facilitated support groups for children with illness and their families for over twenty years with organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Brain Tumor Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Packard Children’s Hospital. She has served as Board Member for many children’s health nonprofit organizations including American Cancer Society San Jose, UCSF/Mt. Zion Auxiliary, Creighton Health Institute, and Okizu Foundation. Brisson received her master’s degree in counseling from Santa Clara University and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University.
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