“It’s Okay”: Why You Shouldn’t Dismiss the Emotions of a Child

“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.

But 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?

Nina

Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.

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  1. says

    It’s amazing how often I find myself saying, or just about to say, “it’s ok.” even though I came to the same conclusions you describe here when my son was just a few months old. It is what I have always heard people say to children and what was often said to me, and even though I can remember feeling invalidated by it as a child, it still is an almost reflexive response. I just keep trying to put my beliefs into action, improving my response with each opportunity, and when I accidently say “It’s ok” I try to rectify the situation as you did at the beach.

  2. thesinglecrunch says

    Oh, yes! I find myself doing this too often, and I also realize it, in the moment. I completely agree that when we allow our children to experience their emotions, it helps to reduce negativity. This may sound sill, but thinking this way helped so much with my children and their hair care! It used to be a big deal until I started to really think about WHY they reacted the way they did. Just knowing that I care about how they feel helps them to stay calm. Sharing on my FB page.

  3. says

    This one is tough for me, because sometimes I like to say “It’s okay to be…sad/mad/scared/etc/” to try and address my child’s emotions, but sometimes I get frustrated when they are sad about rules or things I have said no to. For example, when it’s bedtime and they don’t want to go to bed.

  4. Steph says

    We say this all the time! We know not to but it just comes out so easily. We mastered not saying “good girl” and now we need to move on to this. Because, honestly, if someone told me “it’s okay” when I was upset it would be anything but soothing.

    • says

      Steph, I used to be a “good boy” praiser myself until I removed that from my vocabulary too. Sometimes it’s these innocuous phrases that make us think we should say them because they seem right that are the easiest to say.

  5. Nicole says

    I have brushed my little one’s feelings off way too many times. I had the mentality that boys should be raised tough so they are strong men. But, I have now relized that a man that is in touch with his feelings and knows what there worth is a lot better respected and successful in life.

    Fantastic post!

  6. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says

    What great advice. I remember several occasions I could’ve used that with my own kids. I’ll have to make it up to them with the grandboys. Thanks.

  7. says

    Yes! I grew up with a father who CONSTANTLY said, “You’re OK”, before he even knew if we were or not. It wasn’t “Are you ok?”, it was a statement. I try to avoid doing this to my own son, and I think because of my own experience with this behavior, it’s easier for me to not say it. My husband has a difficult time not saying it, though, and doesn’t think it’s as big of a deal as I do.

    I definitely see where you are coming from though. It is very important to validate any and all feelings that our children have and it’s ok if they are not ok.

  8. jamily5 says

    DH does this and it means different things to different people. It can mean: “you are OK so quit whining,” or it could mean, “I’m here to comfort you.” DH usually means the former while I mean the latter.

  9. says

    Great points! I do this without thinking about it too – but if someone says to me “It’s gonna be okay” I feel brushed off and unimportant. It MAY eventually be OKAY – but in the moment i just want someone to care. Great post!

  10. casey says

    This is a good reminder. We took our three year old to a Bounce and Play recently for a birthday party. She had been before (a year or so before when she was only two) and LOVED it. However, this time around she was terrified of the place. We were so frustrated because she had loved it the first time. After feeling exasperated, we finally realized that her fears were legit – and even though we didn’t totally understand them, we needed to respect them.

  11. says

    Great post! It is so easy when we are busy and overwhelmed or frustrated to take the easy route and not take the time to acknowledge their feelings. And frankly, sometimes I can’t help myself. But I do try to acknowledge her feelings even though we can’t really talk about it yet (she’s 13 months old). I am sure she can tell when we take the time to be there for her and it is a good habit to get into.

    • says

      It’s definitely a good habit to get into. I remember doing things when my little guy was just an infant and feeling kind of silly (like talking to him frequently) but boy does it get ingrained in your head so that when the time comes where it’s *really* beneficial, you already have it down pat.

      And yeah, we’re all human and will slip; we’ll never have a perfect record, but being more aware of things helps me make better decisions. Usually :)

  12. Adi says

    You sound like such an amazing mother you should feel proud! Respecting your child like you do create a great bond for life.

  13. says

    Honestly, though, sometimes kids really ARE okay, but they don’t realize it until you say something. To continue your analogy, there have been plenty of things I’ve been sad about to my husband until he looked at me with a “Seriously? Why are you upset over THAT?” and I realized, okay, it’s probably not really a big deal…

    I usually just give sympathy for a minute, then say “Are you okay?” at which point my boys realize “I’m okay, mommy,” stop crying, and continue on with their day!
    Brittany @ Equipping Godly Women recently posted..Was Jesus Really God?My Profile

    • says

      Good point Brittany! WE know they’re okay but they may not. I know I still say ‘it’s okay’ more as a comfort phrase; in this post I was more talking about how we brush their emotions aside as petty when to them it’s still important.