Children of all ages experience strong emotions. As loving parents it can be uncomfortable to watch them struggle. You want to help them, you want them to be OK.
But sometimes as a result of our own discomfort, we try to stop these emotions in their tracks. In turn we don’t allow our children to process the emotions and consequently kids can feel as though these feelings are not appropriate (when they so very much are!)
I have spoken previously about how the little things matter to children and how I parent my sensitive son and my headstrong daughter, respectfully. You may find those posts helpful as background information.
Children get overwhelmed and sometimes this results in tears or anger. Instinctively, we want to tell them “it’s OK” and we want them to stop. That’s natural – we don’t want them to be upset!
But I have seen how that affects them. I’ve made that mistake before and watched as the cries got harder or the anger got louder. To them, it’s not OK in that moment and hearing that is not what they need.
What to do instead of saying “It’s OK”
When we say “it’s okay” it can feel so dismissive to the child’s experience. To them, in that moment, things feel very not okay. Them protesting louder with upset/sadness/anger/etc is a pretty valid response to their emotions being belittled!
So instead, I am there, I get on his level and if I find myself saying “it’s OK”, I tag a “to cry/feel scared/feel sad/feel angry” on the end.
It’s that simple. Children need to know that you hear them. They need those strong feelings validated to help process the strong emotions.
So we validate their emotions, “are you worried/scared/angry/hurt because ____?” & we begin to problem solve together.
As a result, Cam has told me with tear-filled eyes “it’s OK to cry. I’m sad” in such a love-filled way (with eyes that said ‘you taught me that‘). I’m thankful he knows that.
Similarly, my daughter (2.5 years old) is not overly verbal and she gets angry fast when she feels like she’s not being heard. Just last week after a big play at the park we gave warning that we were going to leave but she was not having it once we said we were going. She felt so upset and broke into heart-breaking sobs alongside rolling around in the dirt.
My husband was embarrassed and went straight into damage control mode with “we have to go, that’s enough” and “stop that, you had a great fun play!” This resulted in more temper and more uncomfortable emotions.
I got on her level and said “I’m here if you need a cuddle” and repeated variations of “you really didn’t want to leave” and “you had lots of fun, you didn’t want to go”. The sobs quickly got quieter until I heard a little “yeah” and she reached for me for a hug.
It’s OK to be angry.
It’s OK to be sad.
It’s OK to cry.
It’s OK to feel hurt.
But they don’t want to hear “it’s OK”.
Just like adults, kids want to be heard. Sometimes what they are worried or hurt about doesn’t seem like a big deal to adults. Sometimes it is embarrassing. Sometimes you have been through this so many times that you’re at your wits end. But remember, all they want is to feel like they are valued. Remember that sometimes simply the way you word things and react can make the world of difference both in the moment and for long after.
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