Inside Out (2015) – Comprehensive Review

Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:

Inside Out (2015) is a perfect addition to any family film collection, but especially of any therapeutic foster or adoptive home! Children struggle with abstract concepts until young adulthood even outside of the context of trauma’s influence on development, so Disney/Pixar providing personified emotions onto the big screen can be a seriously incredible tool for children who have endured trauma and struggle with connecting their (understandably) big feelings to their behavior. Plus, this film is appropriate for most ages! Little ones will enjoy the bright colors and fun humor while teens can enjoy the more subtle situational humor bits. I do advise that this film be viewed as a family though so that the most benefit can come through the bonding experience of enjoying a family movie night as well as provide a safe adult to answer hard questions that may arise. Grab your popcorn and tissues and enjoy!

** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **

How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?

Riley is a joyful child enjoying life in a small town with her parents, hockey teammates, and best friends. Though she has a mix of experiences in childhood, this is the only life she knows and so Joy primarily takes the helm of Riley’s experiences and memories. And then suddenly Riley moves to a large, lonely city away from all of her friends and hobbies. Her mother and father are wrapped up in the stress of the move and Riley tries her hardest to put on a brave face in the face of all the change and uncertainty. Deep down though, Riley longs for the only life she’s known and “home”. Sound familiar, caregivers?

This film can be a fantastic resource to foster placements who can identify with Riley’s feeling of displacement and grief. Even though all the changes worked out in the end (complete with a new hockey team, new friends, and a stronger relationship with her parents) Riley could not come to terms with everything until she was given the opportunity to grieve once Joy stepped aside to allow Sadness to express herself. The personification of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust allow a child to see the feelings that often overwhelm their senses and see the process in which they influence behavior, which is a huge step in both honoring emotions and choosing how to best express them. Caregivers of all sorts will benefit immensely from this film experience, especially if their children struggle with connecting feelings to behavior and identifying emotions.

Discussion Points:

  • Emotional Regulation
    A common misconception in several cultural contexts is that happiness and joy should be the primary mode of perception and expression in all circumstances. Not only is this potentially damaging to a child’s mental and emotional state but this does not allow children to learn how to identify their emotions and choose how to appropriately express them or express help in regulating them. Just as a person cannot reach acceptance without moving through the grief cycle, children will not change behavior in a permanent or meaningful way if they cannot learn to process and regulate their emotions and connect them to their behavior. Now, most children (especially younger children) cannot do this alone and will need an adult to help with identification of feelings and connection to behavior. However, some older children may also need this help as they have never been taught to examine the cause of the internal and the effect of the external. “When you feel angry, did you notice that you clench your fists and have a red face? How else do you respond? Do you feel warm on your face?” We sometimes do this without even thinking, but it’s important for a caregiver to be on the lookout for this need for emotional co-regulation. Remember, emotions are not “bad”. All emotions should be considered and validated, and then examined so a choice may be made.
  • Self-Esteem & Identity
    Riley is seen throughout the film as losing pieces of herself through the “death” of her islands, which portray parts of herself. These “deaths” occur in times of great stress, doubt, and loneliness. Foster Care as a culture has several points that are very different from the culture of an established or biological child in the home, including, but not limited to: agency/government involvement, differences in child rearing, differences in religion, differences in interests, different family compositions, different community ideas, etc. Caregivers should be mindful of how the removal from family/community of origin can be identified as highly traumatic and how a child’s self-esteem and self-identity can be negatively affected when compared to another cultural context as “wrong” or even “other”. Caregivers should find ways to celebrate the unique parts of their children’s cultures and this is a part of who they are. If we ignore or put-down their cultures, we are in a sense putting them down. As we see at the end of the film, it is never too late to build up a child’s sense of self-esteem as Riley is able to grow more islands (or, positive supports and interests) as she matures in a more stable, therapeutic environment in which she can process her perceptions and emotions in a healthy manner with her caring parents.
  • Transitions
    As the movie kicks off with Riley moving to an unfamiliar place it is pretty clear that change and transitions are a major plot point in the film. However, Riley’s physical move to a new community is not the only difficult transition the audience can identify. Notice the transition as Riley is able to integrate Joy and Sadness and then other emotions into different memories and experiences internally. This is a huge shift for Joy to recognize Riley needs Sadness. It’s a huge internal transition for the emotions to learn they can share memories, adding layers and complexity to emotional ties to memories and perception. Even at the conclusion of the film, the audience can see where the emotions receive a new emotional control panel with all new functions brought about by puberty. Whether it be from external changes in circumstance or the influences of trauma or growth, children in care will experience many transitions to their peers. Caregivers should be prepared to address the changes as they come and be prepared to look beyond the behaviors (or lack of as initially seen with Joy-driven-Riley) to identify when their child needs guidance in the face of change.

Cautionary Points:

  • Moving to Unfamiliar Place
    Riley, with little notice, is moved far away from her childhood home to an unfamiliar and lonely place. This may not affect children initially, but this theme may retraumatize children in care who have been moved suddenly from home to placement. It’s important for caregivers to be sensitive to how a child may have perceived entry into care or transitions between foster/adoptive homes.
  • Bullying
    Throughout the film Joy is constantly bullying Sadness. This in part is due to Joy (and the other emotions) not understanding Sadness’s role and having little interest in trying to find out. Throughout the film Sadness is blamed for accidents and denied participation in Riley’s experiences, creating an exclusionary and somewhat hostile environment. Children may be affected by this due to feelings of isolation and being “unable to do anything right” in spite of their best efforts.
  • Deep Emotions
    With processing through intense emotions such as Sadness and Anger (and even Fear) children may be triggered due to their own unresolved feelings. Some children may need some discussion to help best understand what they are seeing and what they may be feeling.
  • Bing-Bong, An Imaginary Friend, Dies
    I’m still not over it as an adult. The loss of a good friend, even if imaginary, is hard and this character death/disappearance may trigger feelings of grief associated with loss in a child’s past and present. Caregivers should be aware of the potential for retraumatization.

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NOTE: Inclusion on these lists does not necessarily mean endorsement. Furthermore, with all our resources, we highly recommend you preview them first to determine if there are any trauma triggers that your child may not be ready to handle. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its reviews to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.

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