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July 4, 2024

Who’s at the emotion control console?

multicultural friends holding round signs with different face expressions isolated on white

Q: Archbishop J, what happened to my little princess?

Many fathers and mothers have been very confused by their child’s development into an adolescent.

The little princess transforms from daddy’s little girl to a stranger from another planet. The little prince transforms into a quiet, reserved character who gives you no information about what is happening in his life. One day, they are huggable, lovable, and a bundle of fun, and the next day, they are a mystery.

Dads understand the boys intuitively, and mums understand their girls. But the rapid transformation is so quick and complete that it takes the family by storm and throws off the rituals and relationships that helped parents navigate childhood. Parents, it is important that you understand the neural development of your child. A lot of development happens in your child’s brain from birth. There are many major stages in this development and many pitfalls to avoid. Let us look at the neural development that triggers you and your child in the various stages of development.

To navigate this foreign terrain, I will use the movie Inside Out. I highly recommend you watch this movie if you really want a deeper understanding of the inner workings of your pre-teen child. Also, watching it with your child will give you a common language to navigate the difficult interactions between parents and children. I believe this common understanding and language is vital today for healthy self-regulation and parenting.

Spoiler alert: If you are the kind of person who does not like people spoiling a movie, stop reading. Go and watch Inside Out and come back to read. I saw Inside Out 2 with a Catholic clinician with a doctorate in psychology. Our conversation afterwards was rich and complex.

The model of mind development is very advanced and very much cutting-edge psychology. I found it refreshing. The producer, Pixar, brought in a consulting team of professionals to ensure the voices in Riley’s brain reflected neuroscience.


A child’s brain

The movie imagines two centres of control: Riley and her neural controls centre—the brain where all the emotions live. These emotions are the little voices inside her head.

As Riley is born, Joy is the first emotion and the only voice in the command centre. Her job is to keep Riley happy and focused on positive things. This does not last long. Sadness comes in next and brings a quite different emotion.

Next comes Fear, who is particularly good at keeping Riley safe, and then comes Disgust, who keeps Riley from food poisoning and social harm. Then comes Anger, who cares very deeply about things being fair.

At first, Joy was in control, and although she understood the other emotions, she did not understand Sadness. But she knew she was part of the team. In headquarters, in a Star-Trek-type control console, are stored all Riley’s emotional memories that could be replayed, each one appearing as translucent balls or orbs. Each day, memories are sent into long-term storage.

Core memories that gave Riley her identity and sense of self are stored in another place.

Each core memory powers a different aspect of Riley’s personality. These incredibly special memories power separate islands where these memories are replicated and have a life of their own. Riley has a hockey island, goofball island, friendship island, honesty island, and family island. The islands of personality are what make Riley, Riley!

The whole animation gives an understanding of the functioning of a child’s brain. Each character of the brain is so suited to the emotion they convey. What is more interesting is who controls the console during which events. Remember, many emotions are working up there. Each has specific duties in our life. We need all of them.


Getting lost

Riley is a success; she is well-adapted, successful, and loved. At 11 years old, she moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and her emotions were turned upside down. This is intriguing.

Joy and Sadness both lose their way and find themselves out of headquarters. That leaves, Anger, Fear and Disgust controlling Riley’s emotional life and emotions. This leads to a complete meltdown where everything goes wrong. The core memories get lost, and the islands connected to those memories fall into ruin.

Being faced with making new friends, meeting new people, attending a new school, and joining a new hockey team was just too much. This break in the “happy” girl allows us to recognise that sometimes children can have the wrong emotions running the console for too long.

The movie’s great gift is the conversation it allows—about who controls the console and why and how things could be different.

With Joy and Sadness lost to Riley, we learn there is much more to the child’s brain than might be understood. There is a place where all the memories are stored for recollection. And there is a place for the suppressed emotions. All cognitive functions, comprehension, and abstract imagination have a place.

The key thing Joy learns is that Sadness is vital to core emotions. There is no joy without sadness. Joy stunted Riley’s development by trying to save Riley from Sadness and other emotions.

Without Joy, however, Anger, Fear and Disgust lead Riley to ruin. All the emotions are vital for Riley’s long-term happiness and growth. Each plays a key part in her development.

As all the emotions realise, they need each other, integration begins. It is Sadness that opens the way out. In the crisis, she is lost because Riley cannot feel sadness. Once Sadness appears and takes over, Riley can grieve. The console starts working again.

In adolescence, our children are dealing with a host of unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, embarrassment, and ennui. Key to their integral development is learning to accept and manage these emotions so that they never “take control”.

Every crisis is an opportunity to allow emotions to connect more deeply and recognise the important interconnection that leads to happiness. Happiness is not the absence of the other emotions. It is when all the emotions are playing their rightful part. Through this synergy, many new core memories are formed, and with them, new islands.


Valuable lesson

There are a few scenes where you see Riley’s and parents’ headquarters also when they are in conflict. It is a great conversation starter. The mother starts to probe, and Riley goes into defence.

She singles out her husband, who is completely distracted. It ends in an all-out escalation nuclear style until— “the foot is down”. This scene is precious for every parent to view and reflect upon.

The headquarters’ perspective in the three people could not be more different. That is the point. We are very different. Male and female, He made them.

The interaction between the headquarters of the three allows for great reflection and deep learning. How do we ensure we do not go into power brokering mode and ‘defcon 2’ (defense readiness condition level 2)?

At the end, there is another three-way view into the headquarters, this time with love and admiration for each other. Again, you see the difference between the male, female, and child’s brains. It’s a great family connection moment—another great conversation starter.

Then Riley bumps into a boy, and we see inside his brain. Well, it is messy and noisy, and an alarm goes off—Girl, Girl, Girl. He freezes! Now we have the boy’s brain headquarters, and well, it is very different!

To understand which emotion is in control is great self-knowledge to begin. To understand that we need all the emotions is even more important. Integrating all the emotions and allowing each to play a vital role in each stage of the journey is the point of healthy emotions.



Key Message:

Parents, a lot is going on in the child’s brain and yours. Listen. Be present.

Action Step:

Look at the movie Inside Out (1 & 2). Parents first and then the children. Have a conversation.

Scripture Reading:

Romans 7:15–20