Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

What ‘Inside Out’ got right about emotional intelligence

Like a few million other people in America, I recently went to see the movie Inside Out. The attractions of wonderful Amy Poehler and Pixar animation aside, I had a specific interest in the film: the subject of children’s feelings.

Children’s emotions and how they deal with them have been the focus of my academic and professional work for many years. I’ve traveled the globe to work with children who are in crisis, helping them process their feelings. This work confirmed for me that children everywhere experience the same emotions, that feelings truly are universal. So I was very interested to see how the film depicted the inner workings of a child’s feelings.

As you undoubtedly know by now, Inside Out focuses on an 11-year-old girl named Riley and the maelstrom of emotions she experiences after she and her parents move from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco. But the film primarily takes place inside Riley’s head, where the emotions themselves become characters: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, all competing to take charge of what Riley is feeling.

Naturally, being a Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out is beautifully animated and highly entertaining, especially for older children — and for their parents, who will appreciate some humor that may go over their kids’ heads! (I think young children may find certain elements of the film too complicated, and a few scenes could even be quite upsetting.)

To me, one of the most exciting things about the movie is that it shines a light on the subject of emotional intelligence (or EQ): the ability to recognize, understand and manage one’s own emotions. The film can serve as a springboard for conversations between parents and children about what they’re feeling and why. Those are vitally important conversations to have.

Interestingly, there’s a significant difference between the emotional development of young children and that of older kids, like Riley in the film. It’s actually preschoolers who focus on the primary emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear and love (the film has Mindy Kaling giving perfect voice to Disgust, but I think love — thankfully — is a much more common emotion among small children!). And it’s preschoolers who can most benefit from learning what emotions are all about.

Inside Out is right that every one of a child’s emotions is important. Despite Amy Poehler’s best cheerleader antics, a child can’t feel joy all the time! But what does a 3-year-old make of the unpredictable feelings of anger that storm in when her favorite toy is taken by another child? How does a 4-year-old cope with a tidal wave of sadness when his beloved grandparent dies?

Abundant research shows that learning emotional intelligence skills in early childhood is critical in helping children interpret the complex and ever-changing world around them. The key for children approaching kindergarten is to learn the EQ skills of recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating those emotions: what the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence calls the RULER method. Decades of research have shown that children who learn EQ skills are more likely to do well in all aspects of life—socially, academically, physically, psychologically. Yet kindergarten teachers report that more than 30% of children entering their classrooms are emotionally unprepared for the demands of school, even though these teachers note that EQ skills are more important to school success than the ability to read or hold a pencil!

Because of this overwhelming need, I wanted to give parents the tools to help their children learn these important life skills. I created The Moodsters, a line of educational toys, books, and an app that teach young children the fundamentals of feelings. Children can engage with the characters and have fun while learning how to understand and manage their emotions. Our homes are our children’s very first classrooms, and there is no better place for them to begin learning about their emotions.

While Inside Out shows us a hilariously chaotic “control room” where emotions are dictating Riley’s behavior, in real life we want our kids to be at the controls. Our job as parents is to help equip our children with the ability to take charge of their feelings and navigate the challenges of everyday life.

Leave a Comment