By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC
Last night during the 88th Annual Academy Awards, Disney’s Inside Out took home the Oscar for the best animated feature of the past year. The film, about a young girl named Riley experiencing many changes as she enters adolescence, focuses on our internal, emotional worlds. Told from the perspective of the personified emotions that guide her, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, Inside Out provides parents a valuable resource into understanding the minds of their children (and their own!). If you haven’t yet seen it with your children, this could be a great opportunity for your family to bond and have intentional conversations about emotions.
One of the primary lessons of Inside Out is that each of our emotions—even the negative ones—serves an important purpose in our lives. Too often, we shy away from our more negative emotions, including sadness, anger, or fear. We may tell ourselves that is inappropriate to feel a certain way or even try to push away how we feel. While emotions run amuck may lead to all kinds of difficulties, in and of themselves they are important “check engine lights” of our life. When we are allowed to experience them in the presence of a safe or caring person (like a parent!), our emotions tend to lead to greater self-understanding.
As a parent, how do you respond when your child displays a negative emotion? Do you dismiss it with a quick, “Cheer up, kiddo!”? Do you disapprove of it by treating sadness as weakness? Or do you provide your children a safe, validating space within which they can learn emotional regulation?
Inside Out provides a beautiful scene that can help us understand the importance of validating your child’s emotional experience instead of dismissing it or disapproving of it. When Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong discovers that he may not play a role in her life as she grows up, he becomes very sad. Seeing this, Joy leaps into action to distract him from his sadness:
Bing Bong: Riley can’t be done with me…
Joy: Hey, it’s gonna be okay! We can fix this!…
Bing Bong: I had a whole trip planned for us.
Joy: Hey, who’s ticklish, huh? Here comes the tickle monster! Hey, Bing Bong, look at this! (Makes a silly face)
Have you ever found yourself doing some of these things when your child feels sad? How did those strategies work for you? Even though Joy’s intentions are good, she wasn’t very helpful by trying to distract him or minimize what he was feeling. Bing Bong couldn’t move past his negative emotional state. Following this exchange, Sadness reached for Bing Bong with a different response:
Sadness: I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something you loved. It’s gone forever.
Bing Bong: It’s all I had left of Riley.
Sadness: I bet you and Riley had great adventures.
Bing Bong: Oh, they were wonderful…we were best friends.
Sadness: Yeah (reaching out for a hug), that’s sad.
Bing Bong: (Cries, then:) I’m okay now. Come on, the train station is this way.
By validating his sadness and providing a listening ear, Sadness created a path for Bing Bong to move toward healing. It works this way with our children, too. Instead of trying to distract them or dismiss their negative emotions, we can help them move toward healing and maturity by validating what they feel and listening to what they have to say. By being their shoulder to cry on, you not only help teach them how to self-regulate—you can also deepen the bond you share and strengthen your family relationships.