Both of my kids have attention issues. We talk a lot about emotions and needing to control them. I’ve read up on and self-regulation and explored many strategies. I even paid for a social skills class for gifted kids with attention issues.
All of this is to say that I was excited—and a little nervous—about taking my kids to see the new Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie shows different “feelings” that live inside the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Based on the movie posters, I could tell these characters weren’t going to be too subtle. (“Anger” is red. “Sadness” is blue.)
But here’s what the movie does brilliantly: It shows a bunch of feelings working together to operate a control panel inside the girl’s head. It’s not a perfect analogy for executive functions, but it’s pretty darn close!
One important aspect of executive function is self-regulation, including regulation of emotions. This can be a difficult concept for kids. (It can be tough for adults too.) And like many kids with attention issues, mine sometimes have had a hard time even identifying their own feelings, let alone those of movie characters.
But a few minutes into the movie, it was very obvious from my kids’ reactions that they were following along, laughing and understanding the story quite well. But what was even more amazing was that the movie seemed to understand my kids, too.
Why was this so amazing? Well, unfortunately, I think my kids are often misunderstood—even (I hate to admit this) by me. They tend to feel things more intensely and react more quickly than other kids. The intensity of their feelings can interfere with their ability to focus and get organized.
Some kids might feel happy at the thought of a birthday party that starts in a couple hours. But my 9-year-old daughter might become so excited that she can’t stop talking (and interrupting my call with a client). If my 14-year-old son’s favorite baseball team loses a big game, he might run to his room and slam the door.
What outsiders tend to see is just my kids’ behavior. Not the feelings that motivate it. Or the challenges my kids have in regulating those feelings.
That’s why this movie was so great—and maybe even therapeutic—for my kids. In scene after scene, we see examples of a feeling having just a little too much control over Riley’s actions.
Early in the movie, for example, we see Riley as a toddler, as her parents are trying to feed her broccoli. Inside her head, we see the green “Disgust” character take over the control panel. Suddenly Riley is screaming and broccoli is flying through the air. Feelings, we see, lead to actions.
In another scene, Riley is really angry, because she’s had a bad day at her brand-new school. We know she’s angry, because the movie shows the “Anger” character at the controls. And Riley just couldn’t let it go.
At the dinner table with her parents, Riley starts behaving disrespectfully, and eventually her dad sends her to her room. It was great for my kids to have a chance to visualize precisely how another child’s behavior might result from feelings that were beyond her control.
In the car ride on the way home, I asked my daughter which one of the feelings she has the most often. She answered, “Most of the time, I am like Joy…. But sometimes I am the red one, Anger.”
That led us into a fascinating conversation about what happens when she feels angry. She was able to describe the way the angry feelings in the red character would build up until he reached the point where he exploded. “That happens to me, sometimes. And then it’s hard for me to calm down.”
I loved that the movie made it so easy for my daughter to recognize, name and describe a feeling. After she talked a little about how she connected to the movie, I asked my son the same question. Which feeling did he most identify with? Which one is in charge of the control panel most often?
“Well,” he answered thoughtfully, “up until recently I would have said Joy. But I’m in puberty. Now they all seem to be fighting for their own position.” (Talk about signs of emotional intelligence!) Thank you, Pixar, for helping my family and so many others have conversations about important issues that are often really hard to talk about.
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About the author
Jenifer Kasten is a special education consultant and the parent of two children with learning and thinking differences.