For kids with anxiety, is seeing 'Inside Out 2' a good idea?

Experts say the film about emotions opens the door to conversations parents can have with their kids.

Animated characters including Anxiety are shown in a scene from the movie.
Anxiety (Maya Hawke) disrupts Headquarters in Inside Out 2. (Pixar)

This article contains spoilers about Inside Out 2.

In Disney Pixar’s blockbuster sequel Inside Out 2, which hit theaters last week, a new character with a frizzy spray of orange hair and an awkward smile walks into Headquarters with two armfuls of literal baggage. Her name is Anxiety, and she’s ready to take over.

The film, which follows the 2015 original about a girl named Riley and her sometimes competing emotions, now sees a 13-year-old Riley navigating friendships while also dealing with puberty. In the process, her original core emotions led by Joy (Amy Poehler), along with Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, have been overtaken by Anxiety (Maya Hawke) and her crew of Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

As anyone who’s dealt with teens knows — including the experts that Pixar consulted for the film — when it comes to puberty and the self-conscious emotions that come with it, things can get messy.

So with all these intense emotions dramatically playing out as characters onscreen, is it OK for children with anxiety to watch?

The animated character Anxiety shown with other characters.
Anxiety takes over the console in Inside Out 2. (Pixar)

“Our natural tendency as parents, when our kids are scared, is to protect them and to keep them safe,” clinical psychologist and author Eileen Kennedy-Moore told Yahoo Entertainment. “But that is the opposite of what any good therapist is going to tell you, because avoidance makes anxiety grow.”

And “grow” is exactly what happens in the film, as Anxiety the character sidelines Joy at the control panel and literally starts pushing buttons. However, that’s not to say that anxiety as an emotion is necessarily a bad thing, according to Kennedy-Moore.

“There have been a mountain of studies that show that our best performance happens at moderate levels of anxiety,” the author of Growing Feelings: A Kids’ Guide to Dealing With Emotions About Friends and Other Kids, added. “I think one of the best things that the movie does is show that anxiety can be helpful because at the start of the movie, Anxiety is doing a better job than Joy at planning different things.”

Experts say moderate levels of stress and anxiety help people prepare — that is, study for the test, stay on top of deadlines and practice before the big game.

“The lesson that our kids need to hear is that anxiety is not a stop signal. It's a sign that we're doing something new or challenging,” Kennedy-Moore said. “So it's a good thing.”

However, it’s when anxiety starts taking over that problems can start. In fact, a pivotal scene in the film shows Riley dealing with an anxiety attack after accidentally hurting her friend while playing ice hockey. She experiences symptoms like a racing heart, sweating and stress.

Is this something that could stress young audiences as well?

“[Anxiety is] a very cute, fuzzy little thing who really means well, but gets a little out of control,” Betsy Bozdech, editorial director of Common Sense Media, told Yahoo Entertainment. (The ratings site recommended the film for ages 6 and up, while Kennedy-Moore suggested 7.) “Her goal is to help Riley, not to hurt her. And so she's sort of positioned as the villain or antagonist in the movie, but she's not a villain. She's just someone who gets in her own way.

“And I think that's how anxiety feels to a lot of kids, a lot of people in general. This is something that we don't mean for it to take over and take control, but when it happens, it's really hard to snap that, to get it to break that pattern.”

Bozdech saw the film with her 14-year-old daughter, who said she thought Anxiety was portrayed in a “relatable” way.

“When I was talking about it with my daughter, she said, ‘Yeah, it might be a little upsetting to see anxiety taking control, but it's also really validating and it can offer a way to talk about what it feels like,’” Bozdech said.

Sarah, a mom in Los Angeles who has an 11-year-old daughter with anxiety, told Yahoo Entertainment that she wasn’t concerned about Anxiety’s portrayal in the film.

“I thought the panic attack was powerfully illustrated and very relatable,” she said. “As a parent, I am always trying to find ways to normalize what my children are feeling and help them feel that they aren’t alone in their experience.”

Her daughter, Amelie, who has experienced panic attacks, agreed.

“I remembered my panic attacks and how awful it felt to have them,” she said. “But it also made me feel normal because I related so much. It just reminded me it used to happen to me and how awful that must be for Riley.”

If anything, experts like Bozdech and Kennedy-Moore, who has her own podcast about kids navigating friendships, say that films like Inside Out 2 open the door to important conversations to have with kids.

“If a kid is prone to anxiety, I think that this is a really good thing to see,” Kennedy-Moore said, “because what also happens is [Riley] feels terrible — but then she gets through it.”

What also makes Inside Out 2 — and this scene in particular — worth seeing, according to the psychologist, is that the drama engages kids’ emotions. They see Riley struggling and care about her and the emotions in her head.

“It'll give families the tools and language and images that they can use to have conversations,” Bozdech said. “If you know your kid is dealing with anxiety, to then say, ‘Is that how it feels to you?’ And they can say, ‘Yeah, it totally feels like I'm in a whirlwind, but also paralyzed,’ or ‘It feels like I can't breathe. And it feels like I need someone to remind me to look for the joy in my life too.’”