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Why We Can’t Just Tell Our Kids Not to Worry

Leaning into kids' difficult emotions helps them cope better.

Matheus Bertelli/Pexels
Red-haired Girl Standing Near Plant
Source: Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

As parents and caregivers, we want nothing more than to shield our kids from pain, yet the world can be a pretty upsetting place sometimes.

Imagine that your child says to you, with tears brimming in their eyes: “Katie hates me. She doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

Thud. Your heart drops.

If you’re like the thousands of parents and caregivers we’ve surveyed over the years, you might quickly, anxiously respond with something like: “That’s not true! I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding! It’ll be OK!”

Sound familiar? If you can relate, welcome to the not-so-exclusive-club. Most of us have been very well conditioned to respond to our child’s emotional pain with reassurance, cheerleading, distraction, or with attempts to “fix” or problem-solve. Why? Because we’ve been taught to lean away from painful emotional states in order to feel relief—and most people still believe it’s the right thing to do.

The problem is that it’s outdated advice and it actually goes against what we’re now learning about the neuroscience of “feeling bad.” Reassurance can bring short-term relief to a child who is suffering, there’s no doubt. But if it’s the only strategy, children (and adults) can be left feeling alone in their pain or with the impression that the important people in their life can’t handle “going there” with them. There is only one thing worse than feeling like you’ve lost a best friend, and that’s having nobody to talk to about the associated sadness, fear, or even shame.

What to do instead?

Research shows that when parents can put into words their child’s experience—including the reasons why they might feel the way they do—the brain calms, and almost immediately. If we use the example above, it might sound like:

“Oh sweetie, I can imagine you’d feel pretty sad because your friendship with Katie means a lot to you and she’s the main friend you’ve been talking to these days. You might also feel scared because you’ve never had a fight with her before and you worry you might lose her.”

Notice a few things about this example: (a) the parent comments on the child’s perspective rather than their own, (b) the parent shows they “get it” by giving two possible reasons why the child might be feeling upset, and (c) the parent emphasizes the child’s positive intention with each of the possibilities.

You might also have noticed that the parent doesn’t rush in to use logic, reassure, or suggest solutions for the problem. This doesn’t mean that reassurance and problem-solving don’t have a role to play in this framework; on the contrary—they are crucial elements of support. It’s just that the sequencing is what’s most important.

When parents start off with putting into words what might be going for their child, the verbal and nonverbal signals that come with doing so activate brain-calming neural pathways (and who doesn't want that?). Even if you guess "wrong," as long as the possible reasons are communicated with sincerity, the brain will respond well, leading the child to become more open and flexible. In this brain-state, they can now benefit from your reassurance or your support to solve the problem.

In other words, we first need to put their experience into words—offering a few reasons why it might make sense for them to feel the way they do—before we offer emotional and practical support for our efforts to be maximally effective.

See if you can “feel” the difference:

Scenario 1: Typical Response (reassurance and problem-solving)

Kid: “Katie hates me. She doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

Parent: “Oh sweetie, I’m sure it’s not that bad. Why don’t you just message her or let me call her mom?”

Scenario 2: Brain-Friendly Response (putting into words their possible experience then reassurance and problem-solving)

Kid: “Katie hates me. She doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.”

Parent: “Oh sweetie, I can imagine you’d feel pretty sad because your friendship with Katie means a lot to you and she’s the main friend you’ve been talking to these days. You might also feel scared because you’ve never had a fight with her before and you worry you might lose her.” [putting it into words] "I have a feeling you two will be able to figure it out. You’ve been friends for a long time and you both really care about each other. If you want, I can give you some ideas to get it started.” [emotional and practical support]

This is a subtle yet powerful difference.

When kids feel deeply understood, they become more flexible to see the bigger picture, including someone else’s perspective. That’s why one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our understanding and validation of their point of view. We may not always be able to reassure them that “everything will be OK,” yet we can reassure them through our words and actions that we are there alongside them, and we can figure it out together.

Our new book, What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers offers multiple practical examples of how to put these ideas into action in day-to-day life with kids and addresses common questions and concerns about the approach (like: what if I put into words the wrong thing? Or won’t this take forever?).

Going against the principles that have been taught for decades may feel awkward at first, especially because it is just so automatic and so tempting to reassure. The good news about trying something a little different with your kids is that you get really quick feedback. Let your kids be your guide, and as they feel more relief, we hope you will too.

References

Gus, Licette & Rose, Janet & Gilbert, Louise. (2015). Emotion Coaching: A universal strategy for supporting and promoting sustainable emotional and behavioural well-being. Educational and Child Psychology. 32. 31-41.

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