THE animated fantasy film Inside Out, which opened in our cinemas last Friday, should be used by parents as a platform to discuss difficult topics with their kids and to explore their emotions, suggests child and adolescent psychotherapist, Colman Noctor.
The Pixar Studios film, which explores the inner world of 11-year-old girl, Riley, explains how positive and negative emotions can struggle for dominance, yet also team up, to solve problems.
It’s a message that is empowering for adults as well as children and wrapped up in such a hugely entertaining package that Disney’s blockbuster, Frozen, will no doubt be put on ice in many homes over the coming months.
Colman, who is author of the parenting book Cop On, which aims to assist parents maintain relationships with their children in a technological age, says he is delighted the film has been made.
He urges parents to use Inside Out “to begin an important conversation” with their children: “Remember we feel, we think and we do. So we are emotional, cognitive and behavioural beings. As parents we focus on behaviour which is the last element of this process — whereas trying to understand how our children think and feel may be far more enlightening and may make children feel more understood.”
He says the film was a brave task to take on and if parents engage with it meaningfully, it could be an important tool in family relationships: “Discuss this movie with your children. Use it as a common ground for difficult topics. Admit to your own emotions in an honest and open way and this will encourage your children to reciprocate.”
So impressive has been the response to Inside Out, that it’s already tipped for next year’s Best Picture Academy Award— with five personified animated emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, stealing the show.
Colman took his five-year-old son to the film and said children of all ages will take from it what they are developmentally able to understand.
An important message of the story – which sees Riley uprooted from her home and friends in Minnesota to move to San Francisco – is that emotions need to be recognised and accepted.
One of the consultants to the film, is renowned American psychologist Paul Ekman, now 81, who pioneered the relationship between human emotions and facial expressions. He has said that by offering viewers an understanding of how emotions work, this film should also free us up to choose, rather than be controlled, by our feelings.
However as Colman says, viewers of all ages will understand it on different levels. “My five –year-old loved it but he was only picking up a very superficial understanding of the plot, whereas my 11-year-old nephew took a far more sophisticated understanding of the message. The scary clown in Riley’s unconscious was a little scary for my five-year-old, but the Bing-Bong character was right up his street.”
“What characters each child identifies with, will tell parents about how they understand it, and like any wonderful story we will all see it from a different perspective and this in itself is an interesting insight into a child’s emotional life.”
How children manage difficult feelings is a core aspect of Colman’s work. Often they develop different coping strategies, for example obsessive behaviour, which can be understood as a way of expressing their emotional distress: “A central tenet of therapy is to try to put words on these feelings and to find better ways of expressing these difficult emotions which can often be anxiety, anger or shame.”
Cork-based IPTA-accredited play therapist Mary Barry, who works predominantly with children aged six to 12, agrees: “I work in a non-directive way so the child leads the session. So often because children can’t express the feelings and don’t have the cognitive or verbal skills to name them, it comes through in their behaviour. Children come to me with the whole gamut of experiences from trauma to attachment issues to fears and anxieties. Their feeling reaction manifests in behaviours which becomes less internalised and expressed openly in play, in a therapeutic and safe space.”
The aim is for the child to learn to emotionally regulate better — a clear message in the film, as the inner landscape of Riley’s mind is dramatically played out.
Parents have an important role to play says Mary. “They need to acknowledge in the moment what the child is feeling — rather than saying ‘you’ll be fine’— so that the child is heard and by reflecting it back, they make it real for him or her.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how Riley tries to hang on to Joy despite her grief and how Sadness emerges as a valid and important emotion anyway.
“The storyline flies in the face of the belief that sadness should be avoidable or is unacceptable,” says Colman. “Sadness is a very natural emotion. In order to truly embrace joy, we must experience sadness. Our ability to respond to sad emotions is a cornerstone to becoming well-adjusted.”
There are lots of books on the market to help children of all ages relate to imaginative stories, characters and pictures that help reflect their own feelings and challenges facing them in life.
The six books in the Brighter Little Minds series by psychotherapist, Pamela Woodford, and published by Orpen Publishing Press, address emotional issues that arise in children’s lives, through story, and can be understood by readers from age five. For example, King Giggle, €8.66, tackles such issues for kids as general anxiety disorder, panic attacks, developing autonomy, learning to relax and breathing to be calm.
The five others are called: Lilly and Harry, Sortof the Snail, Watching Raindrops, Ning, and Sid, Spark and The Signal Man.
Understanding Myself, A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings, (age 11+) By Mary C Larnia, €11.39, American Psychological Association
The Feelings Book: The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions (age 8-12) By Dr Lynda Madison, €7.54, American Girl Publishing Inc
Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day, (age 4-8) By Jamie Lee Curtis, €15.48, Harper Collins Children’s Books
I Am So Angry I Could Scream, Helping Children Deal with Anger, (age 6+) By Laura Fox and Christ Sabitino, €7.42, New Horizon Press Publishers
Emily’s Blue Period, (age 6+) By Cathleen Daly, €14.23, First Second
Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-grief Handbook For Kids Dealing With Loss, (age 5+) By Michaelene Mundy, €6.88, Abbey Press
The Way I Feel, (age 4+) By Janan Cain, €6.90, Parenting Press US
My Many Colored Days, (age 2-5) By Dr Seuss, €6.41, Random House Inc
The Great Big Book of Feelings, (age 2+) By Mary Hoffman, €14.20, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books