The Psychology of Inside Out: Emotions and Preadolescence

June 16, 2015

I've always liked Disney*Pixar movies, but it was not until I watched Up and started to cry during the first ten minutes or so that I began to love Disney*Pixar movies. They just do such a great job at getting inside the soul of a person, capturing even the smallest gestures and micro-expressions, and really reaching for your emotions. There is true connection when you watch a Disney*Pixar movie.

Inside Out is everything you'd expect from Disney*Pixar.

This movie is about 11-year-old Riley who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco and is having a difficult time with the transition. We meet her emotions, Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust, who work in "headquarters" and manage what appears to be Riley's working memory. Things go awry when Sadness and Joy get sucked deep into Riley's mind, having to find their way back to headquarters somehow before things get really, really bad. This leaves Anger, Fear, and Disgust to try to make up for the absence of Joy and Sadness in the only ways they each know how.

Transitions always have the potential to be difficult for kids and adults alike. Riley is undergoing multiple transitions at a time: her move from Minnesota, attending a new school, separation from her friends, changes in her personality, and the preparation to leave childhood behind as she begins to prepare for puberty. Though the movie touches on the latter two without going fully in-depth, it does so brilliantly. The movie focuses on the roles of Joy and Sadness during Riley's transitions.

As someone who works with teen and pre-teen girls, and as a woman myself, I know what it is like to be a preadolescent girl. My emotions were all over the place! Do you remember what being 11 was like for you? One foot in childhood, one in adolescence. You want your own space but still want mom and/or dad to say goodnight. Girls undergo A LOT of changes during these years, and Riley's emotions are not quite prepared to cope with them.

At that age, we don't yet know how to effectively manage our emotions, we don't always know that it is possible to experience multiple emotions at once. This may lead us to try to cope with multiple emotions by trying to suppress some of them, which has the potential to only make things worse.

Parental support is crucial for kids during times of transition. One way in which parents can help is by avoiding placing emotional demands on a kid. For example, avoid statements like, "I need you to stop crying." Instead, parents can mirror and validate their kid's emotions. They could show empathy and reflect what they see in their kid, ("I can see that you're feeling sad," "This is hard for you,"). This not only teaches them about their own emotions, but it teaches them how to show empathy for others. (To learn about reflective parenting, click here.)

I personally love how the emotions are portrayed in the movie, and the details that depict Riley's mind preparing for the transition into adolescence. As of updating this review, I have watched it twice, and I recommend it to everybody with kids, and everybody without kids! There are a lot of elements about the science behind how we experience emotions that are accurately portrayed in Inside Out, but what impressed me the most was how the transitions were depicted. I am still so blown away by how good this movie was, that I am honestly trying my best to keep things more or less linear right now!

Though the move from one state to another was definitely a huge transition, I think that the biggest and most important transition that Riley undergoes throughout the movie is preparing for adolescence. Riley is described by her parents as their "happy girl," as Joy has been in charge for most of Riley's childhood from the moment she first sees her parents. Joy is the leader, and it seems clear to the other emotions that Joy is the most important (from their perspective). When Sadness and Joy get sucked up and thrown out of "headquarters," the other emotions are left wondering what to do, and they try to get each other to pretend to be Joy.

But as we all know, it's very hard to pretend to be happy when we're just not feeling that way, so with Disgust, Fear, and Anger being in charge and trying their best to be Joy's replacements, Riley no longer handles daily problems effectively. She becomes angry with her parents. There's this significant scene where Riley's Anger and her dad's Anger are basically talking to each other that really depicts how ineffective it is to interact when both parent and child are angry.

Identity Formation

During her childhood, Riley's parents seemed to nurture very well every aspect of Riley's personality, which is depicted by multiple "islands" in Riley's mind. There's Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island, Honesty Island, and Hockey Island. They came into existence because of certain memories that were very significant in Riley's childhood. For example, one such core memory is of Riley's first time to score in hockey as a toddler. She was playing with her parents, and it was an accidental shot, but it was such a wonderful memory for her that it became part of her identity, and became an aspect of her overall personality.

After the move, Riley's parents are both so busy from day one, with the moving truck that just won't arrive and with dad's business, that Riley begins to feel abandoned. She is unable to express her feelings of sadness because being a "happy girl" makes her parents happy and she wants to please them. Riley's mom provides praise and reinforces this idea on the first night at their new house by thanking Riley for staying their happy girl. Despite having good intentions, Riley's mom placed the emotional demand on Riley to help take care of her father, sending the message that Riley must avoid placing more stress on him by being sad. This also sends the message that feeling sad is inappropriate or wrong.

All Sadness Wants Is To Connect

Apparently triggered by the move (or maybe triggered by the hormonal changes of pre-adolescence) Sadness feels the need to touch ALL the memories, which I saw as symbolic of the idea that all that Sadness wants is to connect. Joy tries her best to keep Sadness away, but in trying to do so, she breaks a rule: trying to suppress a core memory (because it has been touched by Sadness). The sequence of events following this attempt to suppress Sadness and keep her from touching the memories is what leads to both emotions being sucked away into a different area of Riley's mind.

As Joy and Sadness make their journey back to headquarters, they encounter many other aspects of Riley's life, some of which had been forgotten long before. One such aspect is Riley's imaginary friend, Bing Bong, a creature made mostly of cotton candy who is also part dolphin and owns a rocket that runs on song power. Many children have imaginary friends in early childhood. They serve a purpose in helping through transitions and engaging the child in imaginative play. Bing Bong helps Joy and Sadness find a way back to headquarters, but falls into the "memory dump" along the way. Though a sad moment, it was also a necessary one, as children eventually must grow up and integrate the things taught by the imaginary friend (the use and importance of imagination).

Along the journey, Joy tries multiple times to help Sadness find the positive in things, which is a challenge that she does not accomplish. However, Joy eventually gets to experience what it is to be sad firsthand, and she learns the role that Sadness has always played in Riley's life. Each time Sadness has taken the wheel, so to speak, and Riley gets sad, others respond with empathy and help Riley feel better. Those specific events then turned into happy memories, which were stored away and became part of who Riley is as a person. The role of Sadness is to elicit empathy, but also to express it. For example, when Bing Bong loses something important and becomes sad, Joy immediately tries to make him think positive and continue helping her along the way. However, Sadness is able to see Bing Bong and to be present with him, which is what helps Bing Bong feel better.

Throughout the movie, Sadness makes the observation that crying helps her slow down, obsess about life, and generally gives the impression that she is introspective and has actually spent a lot of time reading about how the mind works. This is an aspect that is not often discussed when we talk about feeling sad, the fact that it can allow us to see others' pain more easily and it can allow us to be more introspective.

There are multiple little details that portray the preparation of Riley's mind for the transition into adolescence: the imaginary boyfriend (which Bing Bong has never seen before, even though he hangs out in Imagination Land all the time), the destruction of multiple other structures in Imagination Land, presumably to make way for other structures, and even the destruction of Goofball Island, one of the aspects of Riley's personalities. I don't know how many times I've heard a parent of a pre-adolescent child comment on how they used to be so close to the child when he or she was younger. There is one scene where Riley's dad tries to "start up Goofball Island" by acting silly, only to have Riley be unresponsive.

Each aspect of her personality takes a hit after the move, but after the resolution, new and more age-and developmentally-appropriate islands grow (I know I wasn't the only one who identified with the Boy Band Island thing!), and Family Island is more lush than it has ever been. This is due in part to the fact that Riley's parents responded appropriately when they finally realized that something was wrong, when they were finally able to listen to what had been going on with Riley (because Sadness). Because of her parents' nonjudgmental, unconditional acceptance, their validation, and reflecting what Riley was experiencing, Riley was able to allow herself to feel all her emotions again, and was able to learn to feel multiple emotions at once, successfully integrating multiple aspects of herself that it seemed before she was not ready, because how does one reconcile the concept of Sadness with the idea of being a "happy girl"?

Overall, this was a beautiful movie, wonderfully made, and accurately portrays both the science behind emotions and the experience of girls preparing to go through one of the biggest transitions of their lives.

5 comments on "The Psychology of Inside Out: Emotions and Preadolescence"
  1. Nice review. I will give the movie a go ;)


    1. Thank you! :) Yes, I absolutely, totally recommend it!

    2. I cracked up when Disgust pointed out Puberty. "What's puberty?" joy shook her head. "It's probably nothing." Lol, I wish they would've mentioned how one goes through puberty and a woman's emotions are wild and out of fear freaking out because, you know. This movie was awesome and highly entertaining; I love movies that touch the emotions and the heart. Your review was on point!

  2. Inside Out was amazing!!!! I'm recommending it to everyone I see.

    I love how you mix your nerdy passions on your blog! I've nominated you for a Blogger Recognition Award here:


    1. Thank you so much for this! My internet was down all day yesterday and I couldn't log on to respond, but I really appreciate it :D