Inside Out Themes

20+ Counseling Themes in Inside Out

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 is any other feeling.

– 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 the 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 shortcut 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!



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 counseling booklet

Inside Out Feelings Puzzle






38 responses to “20+ Counseling Themes in Inside Out”

  1. Natasha@ Anxious Toddlers Avatar

    What a great list of themes! I saw this movie over the weekend and didn’t realize how many therapy themes there are until I read this! This movie will be a great launching pad for discussions in therapy sessions 🙂 Thanks for the amazing list!

    1. Heather Avatar

      Thanks for stopping by Natasha! I didn’t realize how many there were either until I started writing them down. I bet I’ll discover more when I talk to kids about it…they always open my eyes!
      Best wishes,

  2. Renee Avatar

    This list is great! Thanks. I’m still working on how to utilize this amazing movie with my students but one thing I am pondering is a lesson on the thought train (for some of my attention challenged students) and that short part on the train where the facts and opinions spill out of the box and Bing Bong (I think) says “Oh, don’t worry. That happens all the time.” I think that part would work well with a lesson on rumors or gossip…. or even challenging your own personal negative thinking.

    1. Heather Avatar

      *Face palm!* How could I have left out the train of thought!!! Great catch!

  3. Courtney Avatar

    I also found the way that Sadness was presented was a very good depiction of depression for many who struggle with it and also struggle to explain it. Might be a good therapy tool for those struggling wth depression and explaining how they feel or simply not feeling alone .

    1. Heather Avatar

      Absolutely!!! Depression is so difficult to identify for many kids.

  4. Barbara Gruener Avatar

    Found this post as I was working on today’s reflections at the Corner on Character so I’ve linked it for my readers. And I tweeted it out! SO much food for all three domains: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Thank you.

    The Corner On Character

    1. Heather Avatar

      Fantastic! Glad you’ve found it helpful. I really appreciate your fertilization and flossing metaphors.

      All my best!

  5. Laurie Mendoza Avatar

    I’m gong to see the movie today. After everything I’ve heard, I’m really hoping that Pixar gets it out on DVD *quickly* so I can start using it in the fall!

    1. Heather Avatar

      Hello Laurie!

      I’m thinking it will probably be out in time for Christmas, since Disney usually tries to cash in during the holidays. 🙂

      Best wishes,

      1. Megan Lynes Avatar
        Megan Lynes

        It’s Pixar, rather than Disney. =) I really love this blog and so appreciate your insight! Thank you! – Megan

        1. Megan Lynes Avatar
          Megan Lynes

          Me again. I’m so sorry, I was wrong! I thought it was only by Pixar but didn’t understand they collaborated. Here’s the correct info. My mistake. “Inside Out is a 2015 American 3D computer-animated comedy-drama Disney/Pixar film, which was released on June 19, 2015. It is Pixar’s 15th feature-length animated film. In keeping with Pixar tradition, a short film called Lava accompanied the movie.”

  6. Amy Avatar

    Love love love this! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. Alex Avatar

    I was a mess in this movie! Starting with the Lava short – he was lonely. One thing i took away from the short was that to have love isn’t enough. We have to give our love away to someone else… and then they give theirs to us – a beautiful thing!

    I want to see the movie again as well!

    Hey Dr. B., great post, I devour them like manna from heaven.

    1. Heather Avatar

      I was a mess during the Lava short! Super sweet!!!!

  8. Macy Holt Avatar
    Macy Holt

    I think a very important topic that I noticed in the film and reacted the most strongly to was Riley’s depression. When her core memories were missing and her personality started to fall apart, she lost the ability to feel joy and sadness and many, many other things to where she could only react in anger, disgust, anxiousness and their attempts to be positive but failed when they came out as sarcasm, hopelessness, and cynicism. Her inner world literally turned gray and she wasn’t able to make fully formed decisions. She just wanted the pain to stop and to feel things again, which I think is beautiful and a fairly accurate representation of inner depression. She didn’t physically act depressed because she could still get out of bed in the morning and go to school, but the emotional component was what struck me.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Great observations!

  9. Janine Hughes Avatar
    Janine Hughes

    I have been using movies to work therapeutically with children for approximately 20 year. Using characters from movies allows children to talk a about their. Feelings in a non threatening way.. The children are able to externalise their problems and not be overwhelmed by them. In addition I have collected a wide range of characters – mostly small figurines . I have often struggled to find toys that represent the ” negative emotions” – anger is mostly identified a in traditional stereotypical themes. Sadness is hardly ever experienced and represented in toys. I loved this movie because it spoke of all feelings without judgement . Both joy and sadness had to find their way home to headquaters. Sadness is a signal that you need help .

    1. Heather Avatar

      I completely agree! I know my kids really connect to all of my movie references. 🙂

  10. Ashley Meek Avatar
    Ashley Meek

    Don’t forget (for the older kids) gender identity. The movie is fascinating because notice Riley’s emotions are different gender identities but most characters have feeling that are all the same gender identity. This can be a great discussion with older students, does this suggest that Riley is still defining herself, that she is okay with more ambiguous gender identity?

    1. Heather Avatar

      Yes! Great points all around. Even more obvious is the connection of gender identity and puberty/sexual identity.

  11. xiuyun Avatar

    I think a very important topic that I noticed in the film are the social psychology,interpersonal relationship and reframing memory.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Excellent observation! I’ll have to add them to the list. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Anita Cummings Avatar
    Anita Cummings

    I work with people who have had a traumatic brain injury. I think this is a very good movie. I am wondering how it would translate to my clients.

    1. Heather Avatar

      It really depends on the affects of the injury. In my experience, it’s best to open the experience up to the client and start by asking them to identify similarities and differences they notice when comparing their experiences with the movie.

  13. eni Avatar

    I think that art has a special place in the movie where they are transformed into more abstract forms. Would you think that it would help students discuss about whether a person gets lost inside his own thought and finds his way out?

    1. Heather Avatar

      Definitely! I also see this scene as a way to explore how we’re not just tied down to one way of being.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

  14. Brittany Avatar

    I loved this movie the first time I saw it. I work in a crisis center for adults and one of my groups I did was tolerating distress emotions. I had an idea to use this movie to demonstrate that all emotions are needed for survival. I think the emotions represent some mental illness. My hope is that seeing how they function together will help relieve some of the stress my clients feel when they feel a certain emotion too intensely and feel like its a bad thing. Do you think adults can take lessons from this movie like children?

    1. Heather Avatar

      Absolutely! Film and music are great outlets for exploration.

  15. Tara Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this list! I am a social worker, currently in school getting my Master’s and I LOVE this list! Another theme I recognized was empathy! When Saddness shows Bing Bong empathy, rather than trying to think about the good times and move on (like Joy), it really helped Bing Bong! This goes to show the importance of showing individuals empathy and talking to them about their feelings, rather than trying to get them to mask their feelings or only think of the happy times!

    1. Heather Avatar

      Yes! Great point. When we teach kids about feelings, it’s so important to let them know that we’re not happy all the time and that’s okay. Another observation is the importance of listening and how it can be the best way to help.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation! You make a lot of really good points.
      Best wishes,

  16. Kate Avatar

    I love these ideas and how you can relate them to “Inside Out”. We are looking into counseling for my teenage sister. We feel like she has so many emotions bottled up and she only knows to express them with anger. Hopefully counseling will be a step in the right direction.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Counseling is a great way to work through feelings in a safe/nonjudgmental environment.

      Best wishes,

  17. PARM LANIADO Avatar

    Thank you so much for a wonderful article!Totally love the ideas the way you related to Inside out.New source of exploration.

  18. ali Avatar

    Hi Im creating a mental awareness brochure for a school assignment and must use the movie inside out, any ideas of to include or how to set the brochure up?Thanks

    1. Heather Avatar

      Hello! I’m glad you found my post. There are a lot of ideas about how to use the movie with counseling right here!

      It’s really easy to create a brochure using a Powerpoint or Word template. If you get stuck, I suggest you check out some tutorials on YouTube.

      Best wishes,

  19. Jessica Avatar

    I am watching the movie again now to see what I can pick up from it. One thing that stands out to me is the differences in different members of the family in dealing with conflict. When Riley is sulky at the dinner table, the mom’s emotions are trying to show empathy and find out what’s wrong so she can help Riley, while the dad’s emotions are interested in her being respectful and keeping order in the household. These scene could be used to discuss the differences in people and the importance of working together and establishing good communication.

    1. Heather Avatar

      Hi Jessica!

      You’re observations are spot on. I found the parents’ perspectives to be very helpful in showing how different people can view the same situation.

      Best wishes,

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