If you’re a mom or dad of a school-age kid, chances are very good that you already know about what are likely to be summer 2015’s biggest blockbusters: “Jurassic World” (which broke many box-office records and could reach as much as $400 million in ticket sales by the end of this weekend) and “Inside Out,” opening nationwide today.
Pixar’s animated “Inside Out” is the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has just moved with her family from the Midwest to San Francisco. Riley is having a tough time adjusting to her new school and life and, like pretty much any preteen, she’s experiencing a wide, quickly-changing array of emotions, including Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. Each feeling is portrayed in the film as a character, all occupying “headquarters” in Riley’s mind.
Spoiler alert: Things start to go awry when Riley and her memories are more controlled by Anger, Disgust and Fear than the other feelings. At this point in the film “[she] begins detaching from friends and family,” explains Nathaniel Herr, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and head of the Interpersonal Emotional Lab at American University in Washington, D.C., who watched a pre-release screening. Before long, “some of [Riley’s] formerly positive memories start to become sad memories.” That opens the girl up to starting down the path of what Dr. Herr terms “risky behavior.” She runs away from home.
A Fun and Teachable Moment
Parents who take their children to see “Inside Out” have a great opportunity for more than a summer afternoon of family fun. The movie is a natural opening to talk to kids about what they’re feeling and encourage them to open up. Children will learn from the film that “it’s okay to have all these emotions,” Herr explains. “You can’t have a life with only joy. There is a place for disgust, which gets you to brush your teeth; fear, which helps you get out of a bad situation; and anger, which helps you stand up for yourself.”
Since mental health issues, including addiction, are strongly linked to the desire to numb difficult feelings and trauma, learning to express emotion in healthy, appropriate ways — and especially finding ways to untangle more complex feelings — is a skill every child and teenager needs to learn as part of growing up to be a healthy adult.
Helping Kids Express a Range of Emotions
It’s also worth mentioning is that “this movie highlights the importance of the parent-child relationship,” adds Herr. “Parents can help their children regulate their emotions and acknowledge different emotional experiences.” Below, we asked Herr and Allison Baker, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, for advice on how parents can use “Inside Out” to help their children better cope with the range of emotions they feel. Here’s their advice:
- Don’t expect your child to “keep smiling.” In the movie Riley’s mom asks her to support her dad and put on a happy face. It’s never a good idea to tell your child what to feel or ask her to bury her true feelings, cautions Herr. “Instead, offer validation for the real emotion that is there,” he says. When a pet dies, it’s better to say, “You seem sad. It’s hard to lose something you care about so much,” rather than, “That’s the way life works; it’s the cycle of life.” When you acknowledge and name an emotion, it keeps it from worsening or spinning out of control, says Herr. But “when you go against an emotion, saying ‘Don’t’ feel that way,’ it intensifies the emotion,” he notes. “That’s because if your child is sad and you say ‘cheer up’ or ‘it’ll be okay,’ your child may need to become even sadder in order for you to recognize his feelings.”
- Create a safe environment for emotions. “Feelings can be big and powerful, confusing and sometimes a little frightening,” says Dr. Baker. “Kids and adults alike may try to keep them private due to uncertainty about how someone may respond or react to what a kid [says] they are feeling.” Parents can create an open and safe environment for kids to share feelings by asking children how they are feeling and then listening when kids do share.
- Watch your reactions. Parents, be mindful of what you say and do when kids are communicating, says Baker. Refrain from rushing to judgment about what your son or daughter says; instead, listen and try to understand how they are feeling and what they are trying to express. Additionally, you can model how to communicate by sharing your own feelings: “It makes me feel happy to see the flowers bloom!” “I feel so calm when we sit by a campfire.”
- Be sensitive during big changes in your child’s life. “Transitions are naturally somewhat anxiety-producing for kids and adults alike,” Baker notes. In fact, research shows that transitions — starting at a new school, making a move, the loss of a close friend or pet — are when older children and teens are most vulnerable to substance abuse. That said, a significant change can also be an opportunity for tremendous growth and development (plus they’re a big part of life, of course), so they are not something to be feared or avoided, says Baker. Parents can help normalize mild feelings of anxiety and the understandable apprehension that kids might experience leading up to a transition, while at the same time letting your child know that you believe in her and know that she will get through this change.
- Teach coping strategies. “We are actually in control of our ‘big’ feelings and there are things we can do, like take deep breaths, to help us think more clearly about our emotions, instead of feeling like we are controlled by them,” says Baker. Help your child learn simple strategies to cope with a range of emotions (we all know that not every day is going to be ruled by Joy, after all).
- Help your child see different “takes.” No situation is all good or all bad, explains Herr. Once you find out that a talent show at school was epically embarrassing for your kid, help him find some positive takeaway as well. “It’s important that their own mind might have a different ‘take’ about an event,” Herr adds. If they’re only seeing the negative in what happened, encourage them to see even some upside, however small. For example, emphasize that after the disastrous talent show performance, plenty of your child’s classmates gave him high-fives for trying his best.
- Make your child’s feelings a priority. “By starting the conversation [about emotions] early … we are giving our children a huge opportunity to become expert at knowing and accepting themselves early on in life,” stresses Baker. “And [we’re] helping them practice tuning in to their own experiences and then communicating effectively if and when they need help.” By helping children understand themselves from the “inside out,” you’ll be setting them up for a healthier, happier life now and for the rest of their lives.
If you saw the movie, did it get your children to open up about their feelings?
Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar