you’re okay (but you’re really not)

As parents, it’s hard to watch your child feel sad, mad, frustrated or any emotion that is less than blissful and ecstatic about life. However, it should be wildly apparent by now that even as an infant, it’s pretty much impossible to prevent those bitter experiences from ever happening to your precious growing bundle of joy. Being displeased is part of life– the bitter and pungent parts that serve their own potent medicine though aren’t always revered because of their intensity; the garlic of emotions.

So often, I hear parents or grandparents or adults in general telling kids “You’re okay” when the child is hurt or crying. This is so frustrating to hear because the child is obviously not okay. We know what they mean is probably it’s not that bad but what they are communicating and what they mean are two very different things.

What you are communicating when you say You’re okay and a child is upset is that the emotion the child is experiencing is invalid. You’re okay communicates that the child is unjustified in feeling upset and that they were wrong about the situation. Children look to adults for guidance on how to react, how to process, and how to interpret the world especially when they’re overwhelmed by sensory input and experiences. The most critical time for a child to be validated is during these overwhelming times when they are crying, hurt, frustrated, tired and generally overrun by emotions. When a child looks to you through the lens of intense emotion, that is not their misbehavior, overreaction, or ploy to get your attention, it is them communicating to you in the only way they know how at the moment.To dismiss their communication that something is majorly messed up and say “You’re okay” is to sever the connection between you and your child and your child and their inner voice that says “I hurt deeply right now.”

You might think that a child who is misbehaving or trying to use a tantrum to manipulate you into giving them what they want might be exempt from the “you’re okay” lecture, but I assure you there is no difference. A tantrum is simply a habit that has been learned, a cry for boundaries, or the result of physical exhaustion (tiredness, hunger). A tantrum is an overwhelm of emotions albeit for frustration less than pain. Though a tantrum may be a means to an end, all actions of all people are nothing but the same. Parents are often put in the place of observer where they can’t fully appreciate what their child is going through, but a tantrum is the same as any other emotion. To dismiss a child’s tantrum with “You’re okay” is to fly right over what’s really bothering them, (who knows? that’s why you’ve got to ask) straight to disconnecting them with their inner voice.

Now obviously what you mean is that the world isn’t ending, tomorrow is another day where they can try again tantrum free, that life will be okay (though it may not currently be okay) and then life it’s (the situation) is okay and you will help them cope with it however you are able and allowed. Why we can’t get in the habit of actually saying what we mean is beyond me. Saying You’re Okay is not actually acknowledging that the child may not be okay and is inept in its application of communicating with your child when there are just as many comparable and totally better methods of expressing your concern without devaluing your child:

  • It‘s okay.
  • You must feel (insert feeling here), you’ll be okay.
  • You can feel (insert feeling here) and I see you’ve chosen to throw a tantrum to show me you’re (insert feeling here). That’s not okay. What is a better way to tell me you feel (insert here)?
  • It’s okay to feel.
  • You must feel (insert here)

There are, many ways to validate the experience of your child without devaluing their experience– just remember the next time you want to say “you’re okay.” 🙂

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