My eight-year-old daughter, Anne, and I had a wonderful time viewing the new Disney/Pixar film "Inside Out." As many parents of a young children know by now, the film tells the story of Riley Andersen, a girl who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and must cope with the transition to a new home, neighborhood and school. The movie's real protagonists, however, are five characters each representing a basic human emotion: joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear. These characters operate a command center inside Riley's brain that controls her emotional expressions and influences her actions and thoughts.

As so many Pixar films before it, "Inside Out" combines awesome computer-generated imagery, talented acting and an inspiring score to offer a clever, enjoyable film. Its unique contribution is that it provides concrete depictions of basic emotions that allow young children to identify with these emotions and understand how they affect their own behavior.


After the movie, while enjoying some ice cream, Anne said that she liked Joy the best because of her cheerful attitude and helpfulness in making friends, but she also liked Disgust's dress and hairstyle. We then played a game, trying to identify the predominant emotions in each other and the other members of our family. She said her older sister is mostly anger and disgust, but mom is much more "complex" (something I have also noticed over the past 16 years of marriage).

The only potential problem with "Inside Out" occurs if we take the film too literally. Although the cute homunculi inside Riley's brain control her behavior, the same does not have to be true for us. The past half-century of clinical psychological science has shown that the way we think about negative events (e.g., classmates teasing, families moving, parents fighting) greatly influences our feelings and overt actions. Our emotions do not always need to control ourselves.

Indeed, much of contemporary child psychotherapy involves helping youths identify and alter problematic thoughts so that they do not need to succumb to sadness, be plagued by anxiety or worry, or react in anger. For example, cognitive therapies for depression and anxiety help children challenge negative thoughts and images that pop into their minds and make events seem more threatening (e.g., "Everyone thinks I'm stupid") or catastrophic (e.g., "No one will ever want to be my friend") than they really are. Children learn to replace these thoughts with more realistic cognitions that allow them to cope with situations more effectively. Similarly, children who frequently lose their temper can be taught behavioral strategies to regulate their emotions and problem-solving techniques to avoid arguments with parents and peers. The American Psychological Association's website effectivechildtherapy.org describes such evidence-based treatments.

So, when Anne commented, "It's funny how much our feelings control us," I quickly replied, "Do you really think that's true? Sometimes, isn't is possible that we can think things or do things to make us feel better — happier and less worried or angry?" (It must be hard to be the child of a psychologist.) Anne stopped licking her cone, generated a sly smile, and said, "You mean like going out for ice cream?" Exactly. And like thinking about good times with family and friends when you're scared, upset or unsure.

Sometimes, however, children experience sadness, fear and anger simply because bad things happen. Like Riley, many children need a parent, caregiver or other trusted adult to listen to them and experience their loss, their worries and their anger with them in the moment. "Inside Out" hits a home run in a final scene when Riley's parents provide this kind of support — support we all need to help us through times when emotions seemingly overwhelm us. In so doing, "Inside Out" also demonstrates how parents can serve as the best therapists for their kids.

So, from one parent to another, here's a little advice: Take your children to "Inside Out," skip the popcorn and candy in the theater, and invite them for ice cream and a nice discussion about the film after it's over. It's much less expensive, and much more fun, than therapy.

Robert Weis is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He is also author of a leading textbook on clinical child psychology. His email is weisr@denison.edu.