Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D., Lead Psychologist of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote this for the "Healthy Kids" blog, www.philly.com/healthykids
Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.
, the masterful new Pixar movie, is aimed at kids - but has a lot to teach parents.
The movie focuses on 11-year-old Riley, or rather on the workings of her mind, where the personified emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work to create memories that serve as the basis of Riley's personality.
At the movie's start, it appears that Joy has done the lion's share of the job, working overtime to make the vast majority of Riley's experiences - and therefore most of her memories - positive.
But Riley is on the cusp of adolescence, where her budding independence permits a wider range of experiences, and her maturing capacity for abstract thought allows for more emotionally complex reactions to them.
In the opening minutes, we learn that Riley's family is moving from Minnesota to the big city of San Francisco. The audience is witness to Riley's challenges of adapting to an unfamiliar environment.
We watch as Joy scurries to and fro, desperate to secure only positive experiences for her beloved Riley in this new town. Joy thinks she has done a good job only when, at the end of each day, most of the memories created are tinged yellow - meaning they are happy ones. She spends most of the movie desperate to keep Sadness from "interfering" with Riley's experiences and, especially, her memories, because whenever Sadness touches them, they become tinged with blue - and the memory takes on a note or more of melancholy.
And so Joy serves as the stand-in for all parents, so dogged in the impossible task of protecting their child from the experience of sadness, as though sadness is a virus with the catastrophic potential to permanently damage their child's personality and future.
The ultimate lesson of the movie, however, is that Sadness is useful - crucial - to Riley's ability to navigate her world for herself. It is when Joy gathers up the courage to allow Riley to feel - REALLY feel - sadness that both characters learn the mighty lessons that sadness brings: that disappointments are a part of life, and the painful emotions they generate promote greater maturity and deeper bonds with others.
As a child psychologist, I spend much of my time urging parents to provide their child opportunities to practice having painful emotions. I ask them to impose reasonable negative consequences for bad behaviors even when that will make their child (temporarily) furious at them. I implore them to help their child gain independence skills - such as sleeping alone, attending school each day, visiting the dentist - even though their child might be (temporarily) terrified while doing so.
Parents don't like to do these things - they fear that their child's attachment to them will wane, or that the child will learn not to trust the world for allowing painful experiences to happen. The problem with this stance is that it makes parenting a painful job, because every time your child experiences distress, it means you are a failure.
A more realistic goal is to help your child learn resilience, the ability to experience distress and function anyway. The safest time for her to learn resilience is during childhood, and the safest place is in her home.