Inside Out:  this summer’s must-see movie for expat families

by Kay Bruner on July 2, 2015

If you are anywhere near a movie theater showing recent releases this summer, you absolutely must take yourself and your family to see Inside Out.

This is not a movie about kissing the handsome prince or surviving an amazing outdoor adventure or defeating the bad guys.

This is a movie about how to have a healthy, mature emotional life–and it all comes to you in gorgeous, entertaining Pixar wonderfulness.

The set-up for the movie is this:  11-year-old Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco for dad’s job.  The real action, however, takes place on the inside of Riley, as her personified emotions interact.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is Riley’s primary emotion.  Riley’s had a great childhood, and she’s a happy kid.  Joy’s in charge with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm, and, as far as everybody knows, that’s perfectly wonderful.

Of course, every kid gets angry or scared or disgusted at times, and Joy understands what those emotions are for:  protection and safety and social belonging.

Sadness, though?  Sadness is just kind of blobby and lethargic and unattractive.

Joy keeps all the other emotions on task and on target, but she doesn’t know what to do with Sadness.  And Sadness doesn’t know what to do with herself, either.  Nobody knows what sadness is for.

At one point, Joy draws a chalk circle and tells Sadness to just stand inside the circle.  But, as Riley struggles through a tough transition, Sadness keeps escaping.

While Joy is a wonderful character and you just love her to pieces, there’s this one moment when Joy says, “I just want Riley to be HAPPY.”  You realize: wow, if Joy doesn’t get a hold of herself, this could get ugly and self-centered very quickly.

Joy is missing something, and we all eventually realize that Sadness has some very special abilities that Joy lacks:

Sadness has explored the deep parts of the brain that Joy’s been too busy to deal with.

Sadness is able to empathize with the sadness in others.

Sadness draws people together for comfort and care.

You guys, I’m a counselor.  I see a fair number of adult TCK’s.  And one of the most common problems that adult TCK’s bring to therapy is unresolved grief–and in general, a lack of understanding and acceptance of emotions like sadness and anger.

I think a lot of times, TCK’s are encouraged to BE HAPPY about their awesome life.  Of course we want our kids to be happy!  And many times their lives are awesome!

It’s just that, in order to deal with the realities of transition, separation, and loss, our kids need better emotional tools than forced happiness.

They need to be able to deal with their sadness and fear and disgust and anger in productive ways as well.

The great gift of Inside Out is this.  You can take your kids to a movie they will enjoy, and at the same time create a shared emotional language for your family.

(Of course, while your kids learn to deal with their emotions, you’ll have to deal with yours as well.  Because we are the grown-ups, and we don’t ask our kids to do what we won’t do.)

If you’re anywhere near a movie theater this summer, go.  If you’re nowhere near a theater, get Inside Out on your wish list for Christmas.  Your family dynamics will thank you later.


Talk about the emotions you saw inside of Riley.

What does each emotion (Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness) do for Riley?

What happens on the outside of Riley’s life, and how does that make her feel on the inside?

Think about a time when you were upset like Riley was.  What happened on the outside?  What emotions did you feel on the inside?

How did Riley’s friends react when she moved away?  Tell me how your friends have reacted when you’ve moved away.  Has it been hard to maintain friendships?  What helps?  What makes it hard?

Why do Riley’s Mom and Dad say things like “Where’s my happy girl?”  How did that make you feel?

After Riley gets upset at the dinner table, her dad comes to her room.  Did it feel like Riley’s dad was being fair to her?  Have you ever felt misunderstood, like Riley did right then?

What did you learn about Sadness in this movie?  How has Sadness been a part of your life?

When you feel sad on the inside, how do you act on the outside?

Which of the emotions do you think is your main emotion right now?

What helped Riley feel close to her parents again?  What helps you feel close to your family?

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Jen

    As a grown MK/TCK, I’m excited for this movie! I want to make sure that in my parenting choices, I’m leaving room for my children’s emotions. I squashed a lot of things down deep growing up, so it’s important to me to teach my children how to process! I think one mistake is believing that our feelings about something are either good or bad. As an adult, I’m realizing that emotions are complicated, and even the really hard things had some really great things mixed in with them. 🙂

    • Yeah, one of the things this movie does really, really well is show the value of all emotions, which I think is enormously helpful. Hope you get to see it soon!

  • Casey

    Thanks for the suggestion, Kay! Being married to an MK and having six of my own, I’m looking forward to putting this in the “toolbox” for our family.

  • Richelle Wright

    Our kids went to see with a bunch of their friends right before we moved… hubby and I weren’t able to go b/c of the craziness involved in moving. In some senses, though, and at least initially, only having read a bit and having an idea has facilitated better convos with my teens… all I can do is listen and ask questions here and there. Totally agree… great movie especially for OLDER Tcks (my littlers enjoyed but thought it was kinda strange so some of the message they are still “uncovering,”) and am looking forward to seeing the movie VERY soon.

  • Our city’s 27 MKs watched this last time our families all got together. Honestly, it was just a way to keep them quiet. Maybe we’ll have to discuss it next time. 🙂

  • Emily

    Kay, I agree with you 100%! I thought this was such a good movie for any child facing grief and transition, TCKs in particular. In fact, when our family watched it, I wrote a post entitled “Why ‘Inside Out’ is the Best TCK Resource of the Year” and encouraged other expat families to go watch the movie. I’ll be sure to also point them to your post here because I think the discussion question you provided are very helpful.

  • I loved this movie so much and agree with you — it is a must, must see for all of the reasons you share.

  • Marla Taviano

    Saw it yesterday here in Cambodia with my husband & our newbie TCK’s (14, 13, and 9yo girls–we’ve been here 8 months). Perfect timing, because we’ve all been a bit of a mess lately. Really really spoke to me and hoping to have a conversation about it soon. Thank you for this!

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