Emotions don’t decide who you are: how to talk to your child about the new emotions in Inside Out 2

Disney
Disney

Inside Out 2 invites us back into the mind of Riley, now a 13-year-old ice-hockey enthusiast on the cusp of high school – and puberty.

Literally overnight, her brain goes through a large-scale demolition and construction that sees Riley wrestling with four new emotions: anxiety, envy, ennui and embarrassment.

These emotions, along with the “core emotions” of joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger, are now together operating a control panel hypersensitive to any and every emotion.

If this sounds like your household, you might be wondering how best to assist your child with these new emotions.

Much of Inside Out 2 is not only relatable but is also backed by science. As children enter adolescence, their brains go through rapid “construction”, with new wiring designed for seeking out and prioritising social relationships with peers.

More emphasis is placed on risk-taking, to aid in exploration of novel experiences, fundamental to establishing their identity and sense of self.

Perhaps the most outward shift observed in adolescence is the broadening and deepening of emotional experience. Seemingly switched overnight, a once calm and content child now expresses novel and at times distressing emotions, with new levels of shifting intensity.

All of this “newness” can be overwhelming. So here is a quick guide to the emotions in the film, how to talk about them with your kids – and how to face them when they arise in your family.

Anxiety

The dominant “new” emotion for Riley is anxiety – a normal response to stress and challenge that “activates” us to engage in the tasks that move us towards our goals.

Ideally, anxiety encourages us to attend to activities that will reduce our stress long term, think encouraging us to prepare for an exam. However, when anxiety takes over with too much intensity, too often, and makes us believe we can not cope, it can stop us from behaving, thinking and feeling in healthy ways, and blocks us reaching our goals.

Parents can provide a frame of reference for anxiety – it is something we all need to feel sometimes, and it might be telling us something important to which we should attend.

However, it should not feel like it never leaves us alone, “bosses” us around, and keeps us away from the things or people that we care about.

Helping kids make healthy choices for their mental health can help reduce anxiety, such as regular exercise, prioritising sleep, and relaxation or mindfulness exercises. However, you know your child best. If you believe anxiety is frequently stopping them doing the things they want and need to do, it may be best to seek help from a mental health professional.

Envy

Envy is the emotion felt when we lack something we desire that is possessed by someone else.

This emotion is particularly relevant in adolescence due to teenagers increased capacity for self-awareness. With this new ability, we can feel painfully aware of what we don’t have, be it an object, social status, skill or achievement.

We again see an emotion that can motivate us, yet can also encourage unhealthy comparison and feelings of animosity.

Rather than tell ourselves (or our kids!) to not feel that way – which can actually make the emotion more intense – we can encourage responding over reacting.

Non-judgemental acknowledging of the emotion can help kids tolerate the potential distress of wanting what others have, and can encourage them to hold true two things at once: I can accept who I am and how I feel, while still wanting to self-improve.

Ennui

Ennui is borrowed from French and is best described as a mix of boredom, weariness and angst.

Ennui is thought to be more prolific in adolescence, when young people feel disconnected and unclear about their role in mainstream society due to their status as no-longer-children but not-yet-adults.

Occasional experience of ennui can initiate a drive to explore novel experiences, a process fundamental to identity development. However, persistent feelings of meaninglessness – or worse, hopelessness – might indicate more severe mental health concerns in your child.

Understanding for how long, and how intensely, children feel the complex emotion of ennui can help, but parents should try to not take it personally if their child “can’t be bothered” (or are not yet able) to describe this complex state of being.

Even just letting our kids, and ourselves, know “there’s a word for that” is likely to increase our tolerance of the anguish of feeling bored and listless.

Embarrassment

In the movie, the emotions of embarrassment and sadness have an unspoken bond.

Memories that include these emotions are literally slingshot to the back of Riley’s mind, so that they do not get tangled up in Riley’s “sense of self” – who she is as a person.

Ultimately this backfires and we learn such emotions actually signal something important: the discomfort we feel when we’ve behaved in a socially unacceptable way can initiate us to repair our relationships (such as apologising!), helping us maintain our connection to others – a psychological need that motivates us all.

The instinct to protect children from discomfort is natural. However, showing our kids we can listen and empathise, without jumping in to “fix” how they feel, will assist with the ultimate goal of staying connected to us, even when they have done something they feel embarrassed about.

Facing growing up

Many moments from Inside Out 2 could help spark a conversation with your child about the complex emotions that are normal when growing up.

Changes to Riley’s “personality” islands sees “family” island becoming more distant, its position of importance replaced by “friendship” island. Anxiety both idolises yet works against joy. There is the poignant question of whether feeling less joy is just a part of growing up.

But, perhaps the best place to start is to adopt the mindset the core emotions adopt at the end of the film: make space for the good, the bad and that which seems to be a mix of both.

Modelling to your child you can tolerate and learn from two potentially contradictory feelings at once – in yourself and in them – will increase their capacity to do so, too, and is a hallmark of wellbeing.

And if that seems too complicated, take advice from joy: “New emotions are annoying at first, but they are good for Riley”.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Shawna Mastro Campbell, Bond University

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Shawna Mastro Campbell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.