By Dan Blair, marriage therapist and family counselor
One of the premises of the movie “Inside Out” is that if you can manage your emotions you can manage your behavior. But my favorite phrase to describe parenting is: This did not go as planned.
I know I’m not the only one that has lost it at times. We all have regrets when it comes to parenting. We’re busy, we’re stressed, we carry hurt from our past.
Our culture tells us to ignore our emotions, do this or that, or give a consequence. That’s not necessarily bad, but strong emotions are contagious, and usually if our child is having strong emotions, so are we.
When you see an angry or overwhelmed child, they are probably feeling other emotions you or they may not be paying attention to. For example, they may be feeling not good enough, rejected or maybe even abandoned and not even be able to put words to it. When we are overwhelmed with one emotion it is difficult if not impossible to talk about other emotions.
Internal Family Systems Theory, which forms a basis for the movie, talks about the Self being blended with a strong emotion when you are overwhelmed by it. Patterns which have distinct emotions, thoughts and behavior patterns are called parts. For example, a part of me wants to do this and a part of me feels like that. These parts are depicted in the movie. We can develop a healthy response to our emotions. IFS would call this the Self. The qualities of Self feature acceptance, compassion, and even curiosity, among others.
It is important for kids to feel that we love them even when we are angry with them. Kids have trouble separating their emotions. All they feel is the emotion that is in charge at the moment. We may feel that way too. As we saw in the movie, emotions were competitive and trying to take control. When Joy was the one dominating in the movie, she learned about the need for the other emotions also. Can we teach our children that they can listen to other emotions besides the one they are feeling in the moment? Do we teach them to accept their emotions? Maybe emotions won’t overwhelm us when we see their usefulness instead of rejecting them.
So when we are overwhelmed, the first step is to take a step back from that emotion. You can identify the emotion but don’t do anything yet until we consult with the other emotions. This teaches self-control.
The next step when the strong emotion subsides is to pay attention to what else you might be feeling. You can see in the movie the positive role each emotion can take. Teaching ourselves and our kids to listen to all of our emotions leads to maturity.
In the movie, sadness was rejected, until its usefulness was revealed toward the end of the movie. It is a useful emotion especially for empathy and to identify needs. Fear and guilt protect us from harm, while joy and disgust reveal values which will develop with experience.
The movie gave great examples of how it works when emotions work together, and how it works when the emotions are competing. It serves as a basis to resolve internal conflict as well as external conflict. Watch it again!