Six Ways Pixar’s "Inside Out" Can Make You A Better Parent

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Parenting
Heartbreak

I expected the movie Inside Out to be insightful and entertaining. I didn’t anticipate how much wisdom it would offer me as a parent, especially since I couldn’t even get my teenager to go see it. The movie tracks both the "outer" life of Riley, an 11 year old girl living happily with her parents in Minnesota until her father’s job prompts a cross country move and she must leave her friends, sports team, and her childhood behind; and her "inner" life where Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness control her emotional experience. We also see the machinery of her mind including memory, her train of thought, and "Islands" which are her points of connection with others such as Friendship Island, Family Island, Goofy Island, Honesty Island, and Hockey Island. The movie—both humorous and poignant—shows how Joy prevails naturally in easier times, but becomes a forced and anxious character as Riley’s islands collapse. And it is only after a depressed, shut-down, unreachable period that the emotion of Sadness is valued as a way to reveal her hurt to others and elicit compassion. This allows her to heal and feel connected again to her family. The movie also occasionally reveals the inner workings of the minds of other characters in the movie, including her parents, teacher, and even pets. So how can this movie make us better parents?

  1. It reminds us that our kids have a LOT going on inside. It is easy as busy adults to forget how much emotion and meaning our children experience through their daily interactions.  Even though we might wish they could just "get over things" or "get with the program," the reminder of their inner workings can increase our patience and compassion toward them.
  2. It reminds us that WE have lot going on inside too. We have a lot to process as we interact with spouses, children, and other important people in our lives. Our own inner drama, especially if occurring outside of our conscious awareness, can obscure our sensitivity to what is going on inside of our kids. Taking time to "go inside" of ourselves and acknowledge our own feelings, thoughts and conflicts can clear space to be more present for our children.
  3. It is not our kids’ job to buffer our own emotions. Expecting this places an unfair burden upon them. We see in the movie how Riley’s parents depend on her upbeat attitude to soothe their own ragged emotions. We see that though well-intentioned, their praise for her positive attitude contributes to her belief that she will disappoint them if she reveals her feelings of sadness or anger. In fact, it is her "stuffing" of those emotions that contributes to an emotional and behavioral crisis.  
  4. All emotions have a purpose. We see how in different moments, different emotions are needed to keep Riley functioning. Even Disgust knows how to provoke Anger when its energy is needed to "break through" at a tough time. We can help our children by appreciating their need to experience their whole rainbow of emotions, rather than welcoming some and trying to banish others. We can teach them to recognize which ones are "at the control panel" at a given time, and to be able to consider how well that is working for them, and how to modify as needed.
  5. Never underestimate the power of parental love.  Even though the attitude we see from our kids (and especially our teens) may suggest otherwise, our stability, love, and attention form the foundation for our children’s sense of well-being. They draw on their earliest memories of our delight in them, fun moments with them, and respectful guidance of them as they face adversity. Seeing how Riley reaches for core memories is a great reminder that building those authentic moments of fun and connection serves our children throughout their lives.
  6. We don’t have to be perfect. When Riley’s parents wake up to what she has been going through, they open their hearts and make some corrections, and we see them all move forward with authentic emotions into their new life in San Francisco. We will make mistakes as parents, but the potential for connection and repair is always there, especially if we allow ourselves to share an appropriate level of emotional vulnerability with our children.

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