Why telling kids “It’s OK” may do more harm than good

“It’s OK” flies out of my mouth all too often. Although my intention behind it comes from the right place, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t helpful. Thinking about it as an adult, if I was expressing strong emotions — sadness, anger, loneliness, disappointment — to a friend or family member and they simply responded, “It’s OK,” I would feel like they weren’t listening. Did you not hear me? This is NOT OK! I’m upset! Yet, I say this to my kids when they are expressing similar emotions.

Ironically, this post applies just as much to adults as it does to children.

Susan David was interviewed on Janet Lansbury’s podcast, Unruffled, on April 28, 2020. The title of the episode is Raising Emotional Intelligence and Resilience for a Meaningful Life. I’ve listened to it multiple times. After hearing this episode the first time, I ordered David’s book, Emotional Agility which I loved.

David shares on the episode and in the book a story about telling her own son “It’s OK,” after getting a round of his newborn shots. The pediatrician suggested she stop as he was not OK; he was in pain and upset he had just been stabbed by a needle. David is a Harvard Medical School psychologist and completely beat herself up for doing this. How could someone who studies emotions be minimizing her own son’s emotions? Which is why the most important reminder she gives is:

"We must be compassionate with ourselves. We are doing the best we can, with who we are, and the resources we have available to us, at any given time."

Handling Strong Emotions

When our kids (or our friends, colleagues, family, etc.) are expressing their strongest emotions, we simply need to show up. For myself, this can be incredibly hard as I describe myself as a problem solver. However, trying to “solve” someone’s emotions is generally the exact opposite of what is needed in that moment.

Showing up to other’s strong emotions means truly listening. Hearing what they are saying, making space for the emotion, not judging it and not trying to fix it. David notes that when people feel seen and accepted for that emotion, the emotion immediately starts to dissipate. Which means saying something like, “It’s OK” would likely make the strong emotion last longer.

Causes more challengesHelpful gestures you can do instead
dismissing feelingscreating space for feelings
judging feelingsaccepting feelings
saying, “It’s OK”saying, “That sounds really upsetting”
trying to stop the emotionsproviding space to experience feelings
solving/fixing the emotionhelping them pass through it

It’s not easy to see our kids hurt, angry, disappointed, rejected, or lonely. My kids are not yet at the age where they have been excluded from a birthday party or didn’t get a grade they wanted after studying hard for a test. Yet, I am already anticipating how challenging it will be for me not to step in. However, I realize that stepping in to solve the “hurt” for them is not going to help them grow. It also isn’t going to help them develop resilience, determine their own values, and become problem solvers themselves. If there only strategy is “Mom will save me,” I will have failed in instilling the qualities I care about the most.

Steps we can take in the moment

Shifting my lens has helped me to realize my new role when my kids are expressing strong emotions. I can:

  1. Create a space and accept those strong emotions
  2. Validate the emotions, but curb the behavior
  3. Help my kids label the emotions they are feeling

It’s important to note that allowing the emotion does not mean allowing the behavior. This is precisely what we are trying to separate out (for ourselves and our kids). That there is a space between the stimulus and the response. That, as David says, we own our emotions, they do not own us.

Even as adults, this is a hard pill for me to swallow. Sometimes, my emotions do own me. I will be angry and say something I regret. I will be frustrated and use just a bit more physical prompting with my kids than I am proud to admit. My emotions get the best of me. (Currently re-reading the part about having compassion for ourselves now).

Planning for likely scenarios makes it easier. Next time one of my kids gets hurt, I will do a better job at acknowledging the pain. If they are feeling lonely that they haven’t seen their friends, I will validate that feeling. If they are feeling hyper, I will help them label that (and guide them to safer choices to engage in for when that feeling inevitably comes around again). If they are upset because they didn’t get what they wanted, I will acknowledge how crummy that can feel.

Next week I will explore how to help our kids (and ourselves) learn from these strong emotions. For now, I love the idea of simply showing up. Validating, accepting, and trying to correctly label whatever emotions our kids/we are feeling. And most importantly, having compassion for ourselves along the way.

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