The Inside Out of Divorce

I joined the scores of parents this weekend taking our children to see Disney/Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out. Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations, despite the positive reviews I had read- just another summer activity. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the movie address children’s emotions with powerful metaphorical characters and images. I have already seen and shared several excellent articles for parents about how to use the movie to discuss emotions with their children. I expect that many more articles and blogs on this general topic will come, and likely even some therapeutic activities developed for children based on the movie characters. (I have a few in mind myself!) What came to mind most for me, though, were several of my child clients whose parents are either currently in a divorce process or have recently divorced. The movie isn't specifically about divorce, but instead about 11-year-old Riley’s feelings around relocating from Minnesota to California. I have no doubt, though, that as my child clients who are experiencing parental divorce watch this movie, they will first and foremost see themselves in the character of Riley in the context of their parents’ divorces. This makes the movie a prime opportunity for divorced or divorcing parents to both personally reflect and talk with their children about divorce, emotions, and, most importantly, relationships. Here are a few suggestions. (Warning- I will include some spoilers. I am writing this with the assumption that readers have seen the movie.)

Words for Feelings - Naming emotions is vitally important for us as humans- language organizes our experiences, relationships, and identities. The movie is a great opportunity to help your children understand different emotions, how we physically experience those emotions, and what those emotions might tell us to do. The five emotions in the movie- Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear- each serve needed roles for Riley, as they do for all of us. The movie emphasizes that ALL of these emotions (brought to life in the movie) care about Riley and play a role in protecting her. There are no “bad” feelings- this is an important point for all kids, and certainly during and after a divorce. However, when Joy and Sadness are no longer present in Headquarters, how Riley acts and feels begins to change dramatically. Conversation starters with kids can include discussions about what they know about each of these emotions, times they have felt each, other emotions that they know and have felt. Don’t necessarily start the conversation specifically about divorce- start more broadly. Then as discussion is flowing, you can ask how those emotions have been felt in relation to the divorce process. It can be powerful for your kids to hear your own emotions, too. Hearing you acknowledge, ‘yes, I am sad about the divorce, too’ can be very validating for your children as long as they don’t then feel responsible for making you feel better by masking their own emotions.

Protecting Core Memories - Riley has a small number of “core memories” that Joy works to protect throughout the movie- protecting them from being forgotten and from being touched by sadness, and therefore changed forever. Divorcing parents can consider what their children’s core memories are likely to be, and how to protect them from being ‘touched’ by the sadness of divorce. Further, keep in mind that the divorce process itself will become a “core memory”- parents play a huge role in what color it will become. Older children may be able to articulate needs and ideas of how parents can do this. For example, I recently heard a child request for his parents to sit together at his graduation ceremony. Although this request did not come in relation to the movie, this child intuitively seemed to understand what he needed from his recently divorced parents in order to protect his memory of the graduation ceremony. Thankfully for him, his parents were able honor this request and make his special day into a positive memory despite their own emotions. Younger children, unable to articulate these needs, will need parents to view events from their immature perspective in order to consider how best to protect their core memories.

Not all Ideas are Good Ideas - When Joy and Sadness are lost, Anger (with assistance from Fear and Disgust) gave Riley a ‘bright idea’ to run away and go back to Minnesota. This is an excellent opportunity to talk about the fact that, although all emotions are good and play helpful roles in our lives, sometimes these big emotions that don’t feel good can lead us to do things that aren’t really getting us what we need or want. And sometimes the ‘bright ideas’ we get from Anger and Fear are more closely related to Sadness.

Permission to Grieve What Is Lost - Despite the “bright idea” to run away, Riley couldn’t really go back to the life in Minnesota that she remembered- that life was forever changed when her parents decided to move. Their home was sold, the hockey team was formed without her, and her friends’ lives were also moving forward. Her parents had reasons for moving that Riley didn’t understand- reasons they couldn’t really explain to her because she was too young. This part of the movie plot can powerfully connect with kids who feel so powerless about their parents’ divorce. Just telling Riley’s story after watching the movie and verbalizing how hard it was for her not to be part of the decisions her parents made can be powerful for your kids, even if you don’t directly point out the parallels with their lives. Sometimes kids can learn more through these kinds of metaphors than if we say it directly about their own lives, (which is also what can make play therapy so powerful for children- they play out the metaphors more than the real stories…).

Islands - Riley’s sense of identity is represented in the movie by ‘islands’. Each of these go dark, and some even crumble after her family moves and Joy is not able to be at the control panel. What are your child’s islands? How can you work together to protect them or even make them stronger? Keep in mind, too, that Riley’s islands came back after she had Joy in Headquarters again.

Sadness to Connection - One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when Joy realizes the role that Sadness played in shaping some of Riley’s Joyful core memories. Sadness leads Riley to tell her parents how she feels, and they respond with love and support, which leads to Riley feeling happy again and adjusting to the transition that she initially is resisting. Sadness, not Anger or Fear or Disgust, is the emotion that most often draws a connect with those we love. Riley’s parents didn’t initially respond to her Sadness about the move in a way that allowed her to admit feeling it- they pressured her to be happy, to keep seeing the bright side of being in a new home, new school, new team. Their own Sadness and Fear likely told them that was the best thing to do- but it didn’t work. It wasn’t what Riley needed. Divorcing parents often share with me how overwhelmed they are with their own emotions, and how much that makes them struggle to know how best to respond to their kids. Inside Out gives us such a powerful metaphor for connection in parent-child relationships. When we respond to Sadness with connection and comfort, we allow Joy to return to Headquarters.

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