Thursday, July 9, 2015

Inside Out Emotions Tool Box

I grew up in households that did not talk about emotions and expected you to stop strong emotions before they became a problem. It was the exact opposite of what I needed due to my history, and as a result I grew up stuffing emotions until I couldn't take it any longer and exploded. To be fair, this it is how my grandparents were raised and was they only way they knew. But I am determined to do better for my own kids. The problem is, until very recently, never having been taught any tools I was unsure what to tell my own kids. I also lacked any confidence that what I might come up with is "right." That's where Disney's new movie, Inside Out, really helped me.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, I highly recommend it. (Here is Care's brief, spoiler free synopsis.) I went to the theater and watched it by myself because I wasn't sure if the emotions might get too intense for my sensitive kids. (I cried watching it.) They will watch it when it we can watch it at home and pause and talk about it if necessary. But you don't have to wait for your kids to watch the movie to begin giving them tools to deal with the five emotions anthropomorphized in the movie: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.

With my own kids, while I always tried to have patience and empathy with their strong emotions I didn't always validate those emotions. Telling them they don't have to be sad about something instead of just letting them use Sadness to process the experience. Without spoilers, that was a big lesson I learned from just a review of the movie. A lesson that made me cry because I had never had my own Sadness validated. I think as parents we don't want our children to be sad so we do what we can to make them as happy as possible as quickly as possible. But I'm not doing that all the time anymore.

When I feel angry or afraid of something, most of the time those emotions are justified. How often do I think that my child's anger or fear is justified? Just because I don't see a good reason for them to feel that way doesn't make it less real an experience for them. So I'm done telling them that their reason for a strong emotion isn't "good enough" and needs to go away.

First Tool: Change of Attitude for Me

Second Tool: Emotional Vocabulary

After I came home from the movie I sat down with the boys and showed them the "Get to Know your Emotions" clip for each of the emotion characters. We talked about each one, what they feel like, and what sort of situations they feel them in. Since that talk a week or so ago we have made sure to identify the strong emotions they are feeling and the boys, especially Early Bird, have started including them in their daily talking. For example, while Builder Boy was expressing Anger in a not helpful way, Early Bird came to me that he was feeling Sadness and Fear and what exactly he was anticipating that he was afraid of. Having that awareness helped everyone communicate better and empathize with each other, and has helped bring positive outcomes to conflicts.

Third Tool: Inside Out Tool Box

Before I came home from seeing the movie I stopped first at the store to see what toys they had that I could use to help start the process of identifying and handling strong emotions. I couldn't buy all of them, but I did buy the Sadness plush and the Anger plush as those were the ones I felt we needed to focus on first. But it is possible to make an Inside Out Tool Box without buying anything. Here's the go-to Tool Box I made:  

Sadness: Sadness plush  OR stuffed animal for hugging. Now when a boy is sad they grab Sadness (not allowed to be played with at other times) and they come to me and we cuddle. No having to explain right away, no trying to immediately cheer them up, just take some time to embrace Sadness. It is only after we have been cuddling for a while that I begin to ask questions and help him find the words to identify what's going on and if anything needs to be done about it; or not. Sometimes it's not something that can be fixed. The lesson I'm trying to teach them is it's okay to be sad for a while. And eventually Sadness goes away, until the next time we need her.

(That picture is an Amazon affiliated link to the Sadness plush that I got, but I got mine at Walmart for half the price Amazon is asking. You don't have to buy a Sadness plush. Any stuffed animal will do.)
Anger: Anger plush AND/OR shaking bottle. New saying in our house: it's okay to be Angry. It is NOT okay to use anger to hurt yourself or others. The best way for me to get Anger out is a physical exertion, and that seems to be what the boys need, too. I told them that they could through, hit, shake, whatever they wanted to do to the Anger plush. Builder Boy does not like this idea at all. So I made a glitter shake bottle, also known as a "Time Out" bottle. The idea is to shake it up as hard as you can to get that physical need met, and then wait and watch the glitter settle to calm down. This validates the feeling they are having while giving them a safe outlet for it so it doesn't stay in control of their brain.

I drew Anger's face on the 1.5L bottle I used with Sharpie as a fun detail, but it's not necessary.

Fear: Story Book. This is an idea from something I recently learned in EMDR therapy and reminded me of an idea from a Little Einsteins book we had years ago. The idea is when my child (usually Early Bird) is afraid of something to have them draw out what it is he thinks is going to happen that is making him so afraid. Then we draw and create a new story, a different explanation of what could happen. Make it realistic, make it silly, but change the story to give his mind an alternative. It could be done as one picture for each, or for older kids maybe a comic book style strip, depending on how involved the Fear story is. For older kids you can come up with "so what do we do if this does happen?" so that they feel prepared and empowered.

The Fear Book can be lose pieces of paper, regular paper stapled together, or even a blank comic strip that you print off the internet. Early Bird really latched onto the idea of it being a book, and I happened to find a cheap, small sketch book. I printed of an image of Fear off the internet and glued it on.

Disgust: Identification and Validation Page. There are various forms of picky eaters and various reasons why a kid might not like something. Like not liking peas because they're "too green." At our house food issues are a sensory issue, so we have a policy of mutual respect that I keep meaning to blog about. But there are other things that bring out our Disgust, and it's okay for a kid to not like something. But while I want to validate their feelings which are as valid as my Disgust for things like pickled pigs feet, I don't want to close the door on them trying it again in the future. As a kid I hated all stuffing, but as an adult I like Stove Top stuffing. I've even found forms of eggplant and liver that I like now when I hated how they were served to me as a kid. So I made a page to put in the Toolbox. I have them draw a picture and fill in the blanks. The page acknowledges that it's okay not to like it, but leaves open the option to try it again someday. For a kid there is something very empowering about the idea of being "bigger"/older. This sheet uses that empowering idea to keep that option door open. After a few months, when the child is "bigger"/older, maybe go through the pages again and see if there is anything they would be willing to try now.

I have no better way of sharing the page I made, but it is free for you to copy/save and print out as much as you want. Just right click on the image.

Joy: Happy Memory Page. Now, Joy isn't exactly an emotion that needs to be "managed" like the other emotions. But I also didn't want to leave her out of the Tool Box. So I made a page for the kids to "record" a very happy memory on in picture form so that they could save that good memory and come back and look at it when that might help them when they're not feeling so Joy-ful. (Again, just right click and save and print away. Or make your own page at home by drawing a yellow circle.)

I also included a new box of washable crayons for Emotions Tool Box use only. Yes that needs to be specified in this house.

Now, this Tool Box isn't something that they use every day. But it is there if they need it. We keep the things in it to use only for their intended use. That means no playing with the tool just for fun. I'll post an update in a month or so and follow up on what continues to work and what doesn't for us. I'd love to hear other's experience with making a Tool Box and how it worked for them. Please comment and share if you do!

For other ideas for using Inside Out or other tools for helping kids with their emotions, here's my Pinterest Board of other ideas.

  Follow Mrs.'s board Emotions on Pinterest.

All images of Disney's Inside Out movie belong to them. The rest of the stuff in this post was my idea.


  1. I love the practical ways to spend time with emotions, not hidden in a closet or running the show, but just there, with attention and acceptance. This article left me with a sense of validation that allows for growth, movement, and flow.

  2. Wonderful way to deal with emotions!

  3. These are some really great ideas.

    1. Thank you! I've been thrilled with the response I've gotten around social media to this idea. A lot of people have said they will try it; I really hope I get to see how others implement the idea!


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