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Five Lessons About Emotions Teens Can Learn from The Movie Inside Out

Sometimes a movie is so educational and entertaining that it can teach you more about a subject than a textbook. And it can do it while making you laugh, cry, or both.

Great movies like that can change your perspective on the world.

Inside Out, a Pixar-animated story about an 11-year-old pre-teen girl named Riley, is one of those movies. It centers around Riley moving from her hometown in Minnesota – where she grew up with happy memories of ice-hockey, silly jokes with Dad, and fun times with friends – to the San Francisco Bay Area. Though at first Riley tries to make the best of a hard situation, she soon begins missing Minnesota. School is hard, their new house is nothing like their old one, and she feels her parents don’t understand her struggles. She ends up trying to run away from home.

But the movie is not so much about Riley, the character, as it is about her individual emotions. There are five of them: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

Each emotion is depicted in the film as its own separate character: Joy is a glowing, sparkly fairy-like cheerleader oozing positivity and optimism. The short, frumpy-looking Sadness is your typical Debbie Downer: mopey, teary and lethargic. Anger is a stocky, square fire-breathing ball of irritation. Wide-eyed Fear is always trembling and biting his nails. And the green-bodied Disgust is quick to cross her arms and wrinkle her nose any time she encounters something repelling.

Featuring these lovable characters, the film Inside Out has a lot to teach teens and adolescents. Here are just a few lessons the movie can teach us about the power of emotions.

Five Takeaways for Teens from the Animated Film “Inside Out”

  1. Emotions have purpose. The five emotions personified in Inside Out are clinically accurate. They’re based on the seven universal emotions shown by the research of Dr. Paul Ekman, a leading expert in human emotion. The two emotions not included in the movie are Surprise and Contempt – but the story does fine without them. Together, these five characters stand at the control center of Riley’s brain, known as headquarters. Their job description? Gauge how to react to social interactions. Help Riley figure out what to do when faced with an internal decision. Oversee her stream-of-consciousness. Observe and assist with the storage and recall of short- and long-term memories. Each emotion also has a unique role: Fear and Anger help Riley determine her flight-or-fight response. Disgust helps her stay away from unsavory situations. Joy helps Riley stay away from painful experiences and seek out happy ones. And Sadness, ultimately, helps Riley gain empathy and sympathy during times of loss.
  2. Childhood memories are powerful. Childhood memories have the power to shape how we see the world. In the film, Riley’s core memories (memories shaped by her childhood experiences) are happy ones. For example: being given emotional attention when crying as a baby, ice-skating with her parents on the lake as a toddler, being goofy with her father as a child, and generally feeling secure and safe in her home and with her parents. Thanks to her positive core memories, Riley’s personality is generally a happy one, and she seems a well-adjusted adolescent. This is why, in the beginning of the film, Joy is the unspoken director of the crew of emotions.
  3. Adolescence changes emotions. According to research, there’s a decline in positive emotions beginning from the time of adolescence. As Dr. Ekman writes, “the experience of positive emotions begins to drop precipitously in frequency and intensity at that age.” This is mainly due to the social and neurodevelopmental changes that occur during adolescence. This is why, for instance, Riley’s memories from childhood are mostly yellow (happy).  But towards the end of the film, there are many more blue- and red-colored ones (sad/angry). Each memory is depicted in the film as a colored glass ball. The color of each ball depends on whether the memory was happy, sad, angry, disgusted, or fearful.
  4. Feelings that aren’t validated can lead to problems. In the film, Riley has a hard time with her move to the Bay Area. However, she attempts to push away sadness and be happy – partly because she does not want to disappoint her parents, who expect her to adjust well. Up in headquarters – he brain – this struggle to repress Sadness is depicted by Joy trying to keep the mopey character away from the control center. On Riley’s first day of school, Joy even draws a circle for Sadness and instructs her “to stay right inside of it.” However, this repression of sadness does not help Riley. Unable to tap into her feelings of loss, she develops what seems to be low-grade depression. She gets into conflict with her family and former best friend, withdraws from activities she once found pleasurable (ice hockey), and develops a negative view of the entire movie. And when Joy and Sadness accidentally fall out of headquarters, Riley’s control center seems to shut down. She cannot feel anything anymore and tries to run away from home. Lesson for teens: when you don’t validate your emotions – and all of them – mental health issues like depression or anxiety can develop.
  5. Validating emotions helps emotional wellbeing. At the end of the film, teens learn a valuable lesson: feeling sad is okay. In fact, acknowledging sadness can help teens reduce their feelings of depression and anxiety. At a poignant moment at the end of the movie, Joy finally realizes that only Sadness has the power to restart Riley’s frozen control center, and gently pushes her to activate headquarters. Once Riley is finally able to cry and truly acknowledge her losses, she races into the arms of her parents. She tells them: “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home. You need to be happy, but I miss my old friends, and my hockey team… please don’t be mad.” Her parents, realizing they never validated Riley’s sadness, finally correct themselves and respond with empathy and validation. Lesson learned: ignoring negative emotions does not make you happy and may make you depressed. Validating emotions, however, helps to heal and process them. This is the first moment in the film when Riley develops a dual-colored memory: both yellow and blue, a bittersweet moment where she feels understood by her parents for her feelings of loss.

The amazing thing about Inside Out is that it teaches all these lessons while being fun, entertaining, and poignant, all at the same time. It does so in a way that the entire family can understand: there’s material in the film for adults, for teens, and for little kids – and it never gets too corny for adults or too complex for kids. It hits the right tone the entire way through, which is why it’s a must-see for almost any family going through any changes, large or small.

The Impact of Childhood Experiences

We’ll shift gears to something serious, now.

Research shows that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have the power to shape our personality as well. Traumatic events like childhood neglect, abuse, and more can influence how children see the world and respond to others, even well into their adolescent and teen years. That’s why, for instance, adolescents who are generally and chronically unhappy, angry, sad and/or acting out may have had childhood trauma.

Untreated trauma can result in long-term physical and mental health issues.

While Riley in Inside Out may not meet the clinical criteria for ACEs, it’s important for parents to understand that when their family experiences big changes, such as a move, a death in the family, or a significant shift in family circumstances, these changes always have an effect on the emotional lives of children. The effect may be small or it may be large. In either case, it’s critical for parents to watch their kids closely during times of transition and talk openly about any emotions – positive or negative – that come to the surface. Communicating helps everyone stay on the same page and move forward together as a family.

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We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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