How often do we reassure our kids by saying “It’s okay”? We try to make them feel better, but don’t ignore children’s emotions — here’s why.
“Let’s go to the beach!” I suggested to my then-toddler. The weather had finally started warming up, and I wanted 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 we started walking across the beach, he cried, “Carry up!” He didn’t want to stand on the sand. Irritated, I carried my 30-plus pound toddler and a heavy, oversized tote bag across a long stretch of sandy beach.
Once I picked a spot though, I had no choice but to put him down so I could spread the blanket on the ground. Immediately, he started crying again.
“It’s okay—it’s just sand,” I reassured him. I assumed he had been finicky about dirt on his feet, something so trivial to me. I was even more confused considering that he’d been to the beach several times in the past without any fuss.
More honestly, I was annoyed that he wasn’t making this any easier on me in what was supposed to be a fun day with the two of us. I finally spread the blanket and he plopped himself down, grateful to be away from the sand.
As I sat with him 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 his little hand shaking.
In that moment, I realized my mistake in brushing aside his cries or assuming he should just get over the sand. He felt scared. Rather than accepting his fear as normal and real, I dismissed it as petty. But as I saw, his shaking hand showed that it was not.
Don’t ignore children’s emotions
It’s so easy to say “It’s okay” and dismiss children’s emotions. We often do so to soothe them after they fall and get hurt, or we say it to reassure their emotions. It might be a fear of sand, uncertainty about a new environment, or a scuffle with another kid.
Saying “It’s okay” seems like the right thing to say to erase their hurt and frustration. We might hold them tight in our arms and whisper, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” In less patient times, we brush their emotions aside with a curt “It’s okay,” irritated with their behavior.
But the emotions are real to them—as real as our own adult emotions are to us. They may not be ready to be rid of them just yet, or can’t turn it off as quickly as we might think they could. They feel all the emotions we do, but don’t understand or communicate them as well.
The next time your child displays emotions, even if it doing so is a hassle, acknowledge how he feels. In doing so, you give him so many opportunities to further develop and define his feelings, such as:
1. A chance to sort through feelings
Imagine you got in a fight with a friend, and a volcanic eruption of emotions is swirling in you. You’re jealous of her new success. You feel rejected. You’re anxious over how to proceed with your friendship.
So, you turn to your partner to sort your emotions, hoping he can provide a listening ear to your troubles. But instead, he says, “It’s okay, I’m sure it’ll turn out fine.” In your mind, it’s not okay. You’re far from feeling the least bit okay.
When I told my toddler “It’s okay,” I didn’t provide an opportunity to discuss what he may be feeling. He still had too many emotions that I completely ignored by saying “It’s okay.”
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2. Feeling respected
In addressing emotions, you’re saying that your child’s feelings are as valid as anyone else’s. She won’t feel belittled or small for being afraid of shadows or upset when another child takes a toy.
You may not show the same fears for shadows or anger over a child taking a toy, but these are real emotions she goes through. It’d be the same as someone not taking your fears or anger as valid reasons to feel upset.
And when you address her fears instead of teasing her with, “Are you being a scaredy cat?” she’ll understand that you take her emotions seriously.
3. Quicker way to reduce difficult behavior
You might think that avoiding or brushing aside your child’s feelings is a quicker way to get him to stop “bugging” you about them. Instead, the opposite is true. The more you acknowledge his emotions, the quicker he’ll be to feel reassured.
Let’s say your child cries hysterically at bath time. Work around his fears. Set the faucet to a slow trickle instead of a steady downpour. Raise the temperature and use your hands instead of a washcloth. Don’t force him to take a bath if he’s truly upset.
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 understood his hesitation at touching the sand.
- explained this sand was the same as the one he plays with at the playground.
- took the lead and played with the sand, but didn’t force him to follow suit.
- recommended walking on the sand but respected his decision when he said no.
- suggested he stand on my flip flops when it times to fold up the blanket if he didn’t want sand all over his feet.
This is especially useful in the long run. Sure, you might convince your child right now that his fear is no big deal, but that fear will continue to fester in him. But if you help him better cope with his emotions, he won’t continue to be afraid the next time he faces those triggers again.
As frustrating as it may be to deal with “petty” fears and emotions, acknowledge them as genuine feelings your child needs to sort through.
Each time you do, you give him a chance to sort through his feelings and learn what they are. You’re also respecting him and his emotions as you would another adult’s. And acknowledging his emotions is a quicker way to reduce difficult behavior than if you brushed them aside.
My son 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. He knows his feelings are valid that adults won’t just brush aside with “It’s okay.”
Get more tips:
- How to Discipline a 1 Year Old (Especially When Yours Ignores You)
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- 5 Things You Need to Do to Handle Your Threenager
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
- Do You Know What to Do when Your Child Acts Out in Public?
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