What happens when we say “you’re okay”?

This is a normal response from parents to want their child to feel better when they fall down or something difficult happens and they are having big feelings.  We want them to feel okay again, so we say “you’re okay.” 

What does the child feel on the inside when we say that? What can often happen is that they feel confused. If they are crying, they are clearly ‘not okay’, and their distress is showing us that. When we tell them they are okay, it sends a message that is out of attunement with where they are at in that moment. Just like if you had just fallen off your bike and your partner came up alongside you and the first words out of their mouth were, ‘You’re okay.’ How would you feel? It also sends them the message that we want them to ‘be okay’ as soon as possible, that we are dismissing them, and that perhaps we can’t handle their big expression of feelings. 

So, what is your child’s need in that moment? To be heard and seen for what is actually going on. To be sat with, to be held, to be told something like…” I’m right here”, or “I’ve got you.” And then just sit with them. No more words necessary because in that place they are in a non-verbal part of their brain, so asking them where it hurts etc. can come later. When we do this we give them the message- ‘I see you are upset, I want you to know I’m here for you and I’m listening.’ Essentially we are giving them empathy first. When we give them empathy in those moments we are meeting a deep hunger in them to be seen. it also calms the part of the brain and nervous system that are activated and teaches them how to be with themselves in times of struggle. This slowly helps build self regulation. This is a very important life skill to have. Rather than encouraging them to detach from their feelings, and override what is going on, to be okay for us. Aletha Solter Ph.D. says, "this forms healthy neural pathways and hormone responses within the body that allows the child’s state of equilibrium to come back into balance."

So, I invite you to try this, if you aren’t’ already doing it and see how this changes your child’s experience and your connection with them when difficult things happen.