Inside Out: A deep dive into a child’s emotions

Inside Out: A deep dive into a child’s emotions

Riley and her parents move to a new home from her hometown in Minnesota to San Francisco, California. For this 11-year-old, happy kid, this was a big change. Her whole world was turned upside down. From changing homes to changing schools to leaving friends behind, the new journey was topsy turvy and most of all, confusing for her. Riley feels a great conflict of emotions – she wants to be happy for her parents but is internally sad, and doesn’t know how to deal with this. 

With this simple premise, Inside Out puts the spotlight on the struggles of a kid with Adjustment Disorder, with a depressed mood. Inside Out puts emphasis on the society’s obsession with being ‘happy’ from the protagonistic lens of her primary emotions. The five main characters of the movie are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, representing the five primary emotions. Riley had never experienced extreme negative emotions – which means Joy was leading her system and making decisions for her. But now, Joy was no longer in control and panics to get her back to ‘normal’. By being unable to experience her sadness about all these changes and pretending that she was okay, Riley ends up being angry, anxious, and irritable, getting into a fight with her parents and her best friend, before shutting down altogether.

Riley seems to meet the criteria for someone suffering from adjustment disorder, according to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and the ICD-10 (World Health Organization, 1992).

This movie beautifully portrays the cognitive development of a child tied up with societal influences on his/her personality. 

Renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defines the adolescent period, ranging from ages 11 to 18, as the time when adolescents search for their identity in cultural, personal, communal, and individual contexts (Erikson, 1970). 

As per Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, Riley is in the third stage of development that lies in the age of 6-11 years. The stage is called Inferiority versus Industry. School and social world of the child plays a very important role in their overall development. Through social interactions and budding friendships, children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and abilities. By feeling competent and capable, children are able to also form a strong self-concept. With Riley being in a completely different environment with no friends and the inability to build new friendships, it affected her self-esteem and her overall personality. 


This evident change can be observed from many of her overt and covert behaviors. She experiences impairment in school (i.e., inability to make friends) and hockey (i.e., inability to enjoy playing in a new environment), unnecessary agitation and acting out at home, and inability to control her emotions in various environments (i.e., lashing out at hockey tryouts, crying at school, resenting her friends from Minnesota). She transitions from wearing bright, seasonally appropriate clothing to hiding behind layers of black and grey clothes (Rivera & Docter, 2015)—a change that can be indicative of a depressed mood. 

Throughout the movie, we see the emotions struggle to deal with the situation as Riley struggles with them – making her further depressed. It’s only when they realize that ‘Sadness’ has to come forth and take the lead to bring her back to her previous self, the emotions truly triumph in decision making – leading to a happier Riley. 

Emotions are really critical to how we look at the world—our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They hold our hands and direct us through various circumstances in life and come out stronger. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. 

Many of the times, we, as a society, focus more on certain emotions and disregard the validity of the rest. In this movie, sadness was disregarded. In life as well, we often don’t prioritize the importance of negative emotions. It’s important to be positive but it’s also important to experience the negative emotions to value the positive ones. In a nutshell, all emotions are important and we should wholeheartedly be authentic and vulnerable to feeling what we need to feel. We should also stop pressuring our kids to ‘always be happy’ or ‘always smile’ – so that they know and understand that it’s not a compulsion but a choice to be happy. 

Both teachers and parents play a great role in making sure children who go through unavoidable circumstances don’t affect them negatively for the long-term. Building their confidence, encouraging their growth and motivating them is essential for a child’s growth. So, let’s pledge to help kids feel their emotions in a safe and supportive environment and help them grow out of any negative experiences with only positive lessons.

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