Most of the action in “Inside Out 2,” which was released last weekend to the delight of audiences and reviewers, takes place inside the head of Riley, a 13-year-old girl who has just hit puberty.

As in the first installment, this movie includes the personified “emotion” characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear living inside Riley’s brain. But now, thanks to raging hormones, presumably, those characters are joined by Anxiety, Envy, Ennui and Embarrassment.

Anxiety is the main antagonist in the new movie, and that’s not surprising, given how many teens (and especially girls) are suffering under the weight of that feeling these days.

There are plenty of clever moments in the movie, which turns our metaphors about the brain into a physical landscape with a “sar-chasm” and the “stream of consciousness.”

But the most brilliant moment comes when we find out that Anxiety has taken over Riley’s imagination and is now employing all the little creatures who used to come up with fun stories or ideas to draw sketches of all the terrible possibilities that could result from any of Riley’s actions. If you’ve ever talked to a teenager paralyzed by anxiety, this is exactly what it seems like. You can keep telling them that those things won’t happen — or that if they do, things will still be OK — but they seem to come up with new worst-case scenarios faster than you can argue with them.

It is worth taking note of what’s going on outside Riley’s head, too. Because while one shouldn’t underestimate the power of puberty to make adolescents behave strangely, that has actually been the case for some time.

Adolescents today, though, are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. What is happening now that’s new? Is there anything in Riley’s outer life worth our notice?

The first thing you might notice about Riley is that she’s an only child. There are no siblings to compete with or horse around with or tease. She is an A student and a precocious hockey player. She has experienced, from what we can tell, almost no failure in her life. Her parents’ lives revolve around her. They both tuck her in at night. They come to her hockey games, wearing team jerseys and cheering her on. When she goes off to a weekend hockey camp, her mother and father are not quite sure what to do with themselves.

Riley does have friends, but the main activity she does with her friends is play hockey. If Riley has free time, we don’t see it. We see her buried under piles of homework and we see her at the ice rink, but that’s about it. This is all a recipe for anxiety. Riley is under a lot of pressure to perform and has experienced almost no independence. Though her parents are constantly trying to reassure her that they will love her no matter what, it’s hard to be the focus of all that adult attention.

At one point in the movie, even Joy recognizes that the steps she is taking to help Riley — getting rid of all of her bad memories — are actually hurting her. Those moments, when Riley has been embarrassed or done something that disappoints her parents, actually — to borrow a phrase — build character. It is notable that the word “character” does not appear in the movie. There are beliefs and dreams and memories and a “sense of self,” but character — something traditionally thought of as being forged through adversity — is not part of the landscape.

'Inside Out' helped me better understand my children. 'Inside Out 2' helped me better understand myself

It is not that Riley doesn’t work hard. She clearly does. But she is working as hard as she can taking directions from adults. She is playing high-level organized sports.

Robert Pondiscio, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, recently defended the importance of organized sports for shaping young people — noting “competitive sports remain unabashedly old school. Kids are held directly accountable. You show up, work hard and perform, or else you sit; the scoreboard is the last word in accountability and resiliency.”

But it is also hard to dismiss the complaint that these activities are completely adult-directed and consume time that kids in previous eras would have spent figuring out how to play and get along on their own.

A final note. Like just about every other 13-year-old, Riley has a smartphone. We see her using it to take selfies, but the coach at the hockey camp takes all the phones away at the beginning of the weekend (Go, coach!). If Riley has this much anxiety without a phone, imagine what she would be like if she were constantly checking one.


It is perfect that the only emotion associated with her own device is Ennui. Because, frankly, ennui was really not an emotion associated with teenagers until fairly recently.

For Gen Xers like me, and the Boomers before us, teen years may have been filled with the extremes of joy and sadness and anger, the deep desire for independence and especially risk taking. But rarely was it boring.

What would it take to get us back to that kind of childhood? Turning our world inside out.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

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