“Let’s go to the beach!” I suggested to my toddler on a recent day off. The weather had finally started warming up, if even just to sit on the sand and hear the waves slapping back and forth. I packed up our blanket and toys, slathered on some sunscreen and headed out.

"It's Okay": Why You Shouldn’t Dismiss the Emotions of a ChildBut once I set my toddler down on the sand on his bare feet, he cried, “Want to carry up!” Apparently he didn’t want to stand on the sand.  So off I go carrying my 30-plus pound toddler and a heavy, oversized tote bag across sandy beach. Once I picked a spot though, I had no choice but to put him down so that I could spread the blanket out. Immediately he starts crying again.

“It’s okay—it’s just sand,” I reassured him. I assumed he had just been finicky about dirt on his feet, something so trivial to me. I was even more befuddled considering that we had gone to the beach several times in the past (albeit, none too recently) where he was perfectly content strolling on the sand. But more honestly, I was probably annoyed that he wasn’t making this any easier on me. Meanwhile, I finally spread the blanket over the sand and my toddler promptly plopped himself down.

As I sat with my toddler on my lap, I dug my hands in the sand, patting it and letting the sand filter through my fingers. “You can try it too,” I told him. And only as he stretched out his arm to touch the sand did I notice that his little hand was shaking ever so slightly. In that moment I realized my mistake in simply brushing aside his cries or assuming that he ought to just get over the sand. He was scared. And rather than accepting his fear as normal and real, I dismissed it as petty, when clearly his shaking hand showed that it was not.

It’s so easy to say “It’s okay” and dismiss the emotions of a child. We often do so to soothe our kids after they fall and get hurt. Or sometimes we use it as a means to reassure their emotions, whether it’s fear of sand, uncertainty about a new environment, or a scuffle with another kid. Saying “It’s okay” seems like a viable way to erase their hurt and frustration.

But to toddlers and young kids, these emotions are very real to them—as real as our own adult emotions are to us—and they may not be ready to be rid of them so quickly. They know so little of our world, having only experienced so much and with brains not yet fully developed. They feel a wide range of emotions—anxiety, fear, jealousy—but have limited understanding and language to fully absorb their meaning or express them verbally. When we refrain from brushing aside their emotions and instead acknowledge them in a genuine way, we provide the following:

  • A chance to sort through their feelings. Imagine you got in a fight with a friend, and a volcanic eruption of emotions is swirling in you: jealousy of her new success, feeling rejected, anxiety over how to proceed with your friendship. You turn to another friend to try to sort through these emotions, but instead your other friend simply says, “It’s okay.” In your mind, it’s not okay; you’re far from feeling the least bit okay. When I told my toddler “It’s okay” during the beach, I didn’t provide an opportunity to discuss what he may be feeling. He still had too many emotions that I completely ignored by simply saying “It’s okay.”
  • Feeling respected. When we take the time to address their emotions and not brush them off as silly, we’re telling our kids that we respect their feelings and that they’re no less valid than adult feelings. They won’t feel belittled or inconsequential for being afraid of shadows on a wall or upset that another kid took their shovel. And when we address their fears instead of chiding them with, “Are you being a scardy cat?” they’ll understand that you take their emotions seriously.
  • Quicker way to reduce negative emotions. In taking the time to sort through my toddler’s emotions, we help him have a better chance to resolve whatever uncertain feelings he may have, rather than simply burying it inside to sprout up later. When he would cry hysterically at bath time, I worked around his fears—such as setting the faucet to a slow trickle instead of a steady downpour, raising the temperature, or using my hands instead of a washcloth—instead of just forcing him to take a bath.

Once I realized my mistake in glossing over my toddler’s genuine fear of the sand, I changed my approach. I was less irritable at his cries and instead respected his emotions and hesitation at touching the sand. I explained that this sand was very similar to the one he plays with at the playground. I took the lead and played with the sand, but didn’t coerce him to follow suit. I recommended walking on the sand but respected his decision when he said no. And when it was time to fold up the blanket, I suggested he stand on my flip flops if he didn’t want sand all over his feet.

He never did end up taking a stroll with me on the beach. The most daring he got was using his hands to play on the sand while he kept his feet safely tucked away on the blanket. And that’s fine. At least he knows his feelings are valid and won’t simply be brushed away as inconsequential.

Have you ever found yourself saying “It’s okay” to your kids when they’re afraid or get hurt?