The Emotions of Inside Out

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Hey mom! Look at me. I am a flying purple elephant,” said the five year old. His mother glanced up and shook her head in wonder at what her child would come up with next.

Many parents wonder why their children’s behavior can be so unpredictable and sometimes bizarre. If only there was a way to know what is going on inside their heads. The opportunity for parents to do just that is the premise of the Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie allows parents and children a window inside the head of an 11 year old girl, Riley.

This particular view of what a child is thinking focuses on Riley’s emotions. The movie concentrates on the five basic emotions of joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. The basic emotions that were chosen by the movie makers are ones that universally appear in normally developing infants between the ages of two to seven months.

These emotions take turns influencing Riley’s behavior with joy being front and center as Riley enjoys an idyllic upbringing in Minnesota. Riley experiences various highs and lows throughout the movie and the role her emotions play in the way Riley reacts is readily apparent.

This clear connection between the role of emotions and a child’s behavior is the movie’s strength. Parents can talk with their children after the movie to make sure they understand that everyone has these emotions, not just Riley. This can provide an opportunity for parents to ask their children about examples of their own behavior where emotions played a role. An example of anger playing a role in a child’s behavior could be when a boy hit his sister because she took his favorite toy.

These types of conversations with children are important as younger children often struggle in being able to identify their own emotions. Children who can’t identify their emotions often are unaware of why they did something which makes it hard for them to manage their own behaviors. The more emotional awareness children develop, the better they are at being able to control their emotions.

Another aspect of Inside Out is that each emotion can influence how a memory is stored and remembered. As memories begin to accumulate, significant memories stand out and form the core of children’s sense of self. This means who they are, where they are going, and how they fit into society. Essentially a sense of self forms the core of a person’s identity.

Children’s sense of self and who they are is particularly flexible based on the experiences they have and feedback they are given from others. The movie highlights this process well in the form of islands which reflect different aspects of Riley’s identity. While children may not understand the deeper implications of identity formation, it is a good reminder to parents that early experiences matter in how children view themselves.


Overall, the movie does a wonderful job in presenting how emotions influence our behaviors and the role memories play in forming our identity. While a person’s emotions and the processes of how the brain remembers is greatly simplified, the movie is a good primer for children to start thinking about their own emotions and how they impact their behavior.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on June 28, 2015

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