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A look at how Disney Pixar’s Inside Out might help us relate to our feelings regarding COVID-19

Written by: Rebecca Woods, MSW, LCSW, LCAS-A, Breaking Through Task Force Co-chair

Disney Pixar does a beautiful job of highlighting 5 emotions in the movie Inside Out.

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving 11-year-old Midwestern girl, but her world turns upside-down when she and her parents move to San Francisco. Riley's emotions -- led by Joy (Amy Poehler) -- try to guide her through this difficult, life-changing event. However, the stress of the move brings Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to the forefront. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept into the far reaches of Riley's mind, only emotions left in Headquarters are Anger, Fear and Disgust.

Within the movie, we see Riley’s mother ask Riley to keep smiling for her dad. Riley is encouraged to keep being their “happy girl” as she adjusts to her new normal. While asking a child to stay positive in a stressful situation can be helpful, we need to be careful not to neglect the actual feelings the child may be experiencing and we need to provide them the space to talk about their feelings. Feelings can all be helpful in their own way when identified and paired with coping skills.

We see how fear and anger can motivate someone to take actions they may not normally take. In the movie, Riley stole a credit card from her mother’s purse to purchase a bus ticket back to her Midwestern hometown, in an effort to find familiarity. In a desperate rush, Joy and Sadness head toward Family Island with Joy insisting Riley needs to be happy. All the while, Anger is leading the way at the control panel. Joy finally surrenders to her own sadness in the journey and by doing so, she realizes that expressing sadness can be beneficial as it can bring help. We see this in the movie through the depiction of Joy’s memory of “Mom, Dad . . . the team . . . they came to help because of sadness.” Joy leads Sadness back to the control panel where Sadness is allowed to take the helm. We see how Riley is able to feel the sadness that was being masked by anger. When she allows herself to feel the sadness, she makes her way back home. Once she is home, she talks about her feelings with her parents, who then share they have also been missing home and share some of the same feelings.

Sometimes, children may not understand what feelings they are experiencing. They may need our help in naming them. Once children are able to place a name to their feelings, they may feel more capable and more comfortable in talking about them.

Let’s take a closer look at how this movie may provide a structure for us to cope with our current situations as a result of COVID-19. Within the movie, Riley is feeling the loss of her friends, her team and her every day activities as she knows them. Many children and youth today can empathize with this loss due to the transition of not going to their classrooms, the restriction of team sports and not spending one on one time with friends. Actually, many of us adults can empathize with the situation.

There are real challenges in this time we are in. We can use this time to learn more about our own feelings as adults. We can name them and acknowledge all of them—without judging ourselves. We can be patient with ourselves as we experience feelings that may be new to us, because we know these experiences we are working through are new. Work is difference for most of us; many of our activities look different. Feeling some fear, anger disgust and sadness is natural.

There is hope in knowing we can also find joy! We can create a new normal, all while understanding it is totally ok to grieve those things we have lost through social distancing and stay at home orders. We can reach out to friends by phone or video. Often, when talking with friends and or family, we learn that we are not alone in our experiences. Dr. Kristin Neff, author of the book titled “Self Compassion” teaches us that understanding the common humanity of the situation can bring comfort. She also teaches that we can find comfort in being able to accept the emotions we are experiencing without judgement. She often asks if we would talk to ourselves the way we talk to a good friend who would share his or her experiences with those same emotions.

I encourage you to watch this movie with your family. After the movie is over, you can ask some of the following questions to encourage more discussion:

· How do you know when you are feeling joy? Fear? Sadness? Disgust? Anger?

· When have you recently felt joy? Fear? Sadness? Disgust? Anger?

When we turn our attention to our emotions-all of our emotions-as adults and learn to cope, we can show our children also how to cope. The website, has some great follow up activities you can do with your children.


Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.

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