20+ Counseling Themes in Inside Out

Heather Thomas Counseling Activities & Resources 38 Comments

Counselors near and far have been excited for the arrival of Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out. Disney’s movie, about a girl who is forced to leave her friends and life as she knows it behind to move across the country for her dad’s new job, is a gold mine for helping kids develop social and emotional skills!

While reading through the posts over at the Elementary School Counselor Exchange on Facebook, I noticed that someone asked for a list of counseling themes in Inside Out. This got me thinking…so I pulled out a pad of paper and came up with 20 themes that are worth exploring in the counseling or even classroom setting. (My title is 20+ since I’m sure I’ll come up with more after I watch it a second time!)

The counseling themes listed below vary in degrees in which they can be found throughout the movie. Some are more obvious than others.

While I include examples of where the theme can be found in the movie, my list is no way the end all and does not include every example of that theme. It is only meant as a guide.

I would love to hear your suggestions of additional themes in the comments below! I only watched Inside Out once…I have a feeling that this is one of those movies where you get more out of it the more you watch it. (Pun intended)


– Riley loses her friends, school, hockey team, basically everything she has known except for her family.

– Losses are big and small…everyone Riley knows to not being able to skate at the local lake in the winter time.


– Riley’s family sacrifices life as they know it in order for her dad to pursue a new job in San Francisco.

– Riley’s mom asks her to put aside her own disappointment in order to support her father.

– Bing Bong paid the ultimate sacrifice for the girl he loved. Yes, I cried…still get a bit weepy thinking about it…

Personal Growth

– Every day new memories are made and stored.

– Some experiences go into long-term memory while others become core memories that shape who we are.

– Over time old memories can become less important or even forgotten.

Core Personality (and the experiences that create it)

– Primary experiences and how we feel about those experiences shape our personality.

– Changing our core personality isn’t easy…but it’s doable.

Value of All Feelings

– Sad isn’t bad and neither are any other feelings.

– Different feelings help us understand and navigate the world around us.

– Feelings become too big to handle when not in moderation…we don’t want anger or fear at the wheel 24/7!

– When we ignore unpleasant feelings…problems can get worse (a lot worse)!

We Have Many Different Feelings

– Joy was first, but she wasn’t alone for long.

– We experience these different feelings as we experience life

– Feelings become more complicated as you get older *Anyone else anxious to see what happens when the Puberty Button is pushed?*

– Adults have many different feelings too…I adored the glimpses into the adult minds…too cute!

Change in Interests

– Exit Fairytale Land -> Enter Imaginary Boyfriend

Feeling Multiple Feelings at Once

– Missing the game-winning shot/family and teammates cheer you up.

– Sad about moving/loyalty to dad

– Triumph of getting out of the pit/heartache over the loss of a dear friend

Communication Skills

– How Riley felt when she talked about how she felt

– How Riley felt when kept her feelings stuffed inside

– The family’s communication skills overall they were pretty solid, but the stress of dad’s new job and the move didn’t leave much room to truly process how everyone was doing.

Coping Strategies

– Putting on a happy face despite our discomfort

– Finding positive things to take our mind off of our discomfort

– Spending time with loved ones and talking to them when times are difficult

– Stuffing your feelings

– Turning away from the support of people who love you

– Breaking rules and violating trust

– Running away from your problems

(You can read more about helping kids develop coping skills here.)

Problem Solving

– Riley tries several surface strategies to make her situation better: decorate her room, spend time with mom, try a new restaurant…yet, she doesn’t seem to have the skill set to tackle more challenging problems. (She could definitely benefit from role-playing or more in-depth problem-solving strategies. You can find both in my TPT shop here and here.)

Creating a New Normal

– Riley adapting to her new home, school, and hockey team.


– Even though Disney doesn’t go into all of the dangers that go along with a child running away and catching a bus to another state, it is definitely a perfect discussion opportunity!

Locus of Control

– Recognizing what we have control over and what we don’t was everywhere in this movie. Almost everything, except for how she responded to the situations around her, was out of Riley’s control.

Plans Don’t Always Work Out

– Riley always thought she was going to live in Minnesota…life was great!

– Joy tries and tries to make every memory great.

– Dad has a few phone calls about how his new business isn’t going according to plan.

– That darn moving van…why did they have to take that short cut through Texas anyway???

– Even an imaginary rocket fueled by song can lose some of its power (who knew?)

– Bing Bong will never make it to the moon with Riley.

Keeping a Positive Attitude

– Joy tries to be positive throughout the entire movie

– Riley tries to keep an upbeat attitude the first few days of their move.

– Riley and Joy block out/ignore other feelings for the sake of being positive. This doesn’t work out very well for either of them.

Finding an Appropriate Way to Let Out Big Feelings

– Sports

– Crying

– Hugs/Physical touch from loved ones

– Talking to loved ones

Never Give Up

– Moving wasn’t a problem Riley could escape from.

– Joy was determined to return to Head Quarters no matter how difficult things became.

Train of Thought

– Riley’s Train of Thought ran out of steam when she went to sleep.

– The Train of Thought carries important ideas, thoughts, and information.


– Riley put her own feelings aside to support her father

– Bing Bong…there’s nothing more loyal than a childhood imaginary friend!

We Need the Support of Others to Achieve Our Goals

– Joy and Sadness needed Bing Bong to help them find their way.

– Riley needed to feel understood by her parents.

Still looking for ways to use Inside Out with your kids? Check out my wishlist post (the image is clickable!): Inside Out Toys and Books for School Counselors and Teachers


Looking for Inside Out video clips? Check out this post!

Inside Out Video Clips to teach feelings and emotions

I would love to hear what you thought about the movie and how you plan on using it with your kiddos in the comments below!

If you’re looking for more counseling themes in movies, check out my post: 20+ Counseling Themes in Star Wars The Force Awakens!

20+ Counseling Themes in Star Wars The Force Awakens

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If you’re looking for a fun Inside Out activity for your kiddos, check out my Inside Feelings booklet or the Inside Feelings Puzzle set.


Inside Out Puzzle Set Activity

Inside Out Puzzle Activity

FREE Feelings Poster

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