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Are You Okay?

March 01, 2014

We say it often — “Are you okay?” — when we notice that our child’s mood seems “off,” or he’s experiencing an emotional setback, or she’s tripped on the pavement or fallen off her bike. We say it because we care; we’re concerned.

The problem is, “are you okay?” closes rather than opens conversation, alienates rather than builds connection. Kids tend to answer with a simple “yes” when clearly they’re not so okay; they say “yes” because nobody wants to think of himself as “not okay.” But we know there’s more going on, that they’re experiencing distress of some sort — which is why we inquire in the first place. Youngsters don’t always know how to talk about their distress, their tough emotions; they need our help finding the right words and making sense of what can be confusing to them. “Are you okay?” offers none of that.

What kids need from us during their moments of distress is attunement (think: tuned-in), our being “in touch” with what they might be feeling — and transmitting to them that we see (or sense) some feelings stirring.1 Here’s how attunement can sound:

  • 4-year-old slips off the monkey bars and tumbles onto the sand below. She runs to you in tears. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “That must hurt! Look how upset you are!”
  • 10-year-old appears vexed as he sits in front of his video game screen. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You seem really frustrated.”
  • 12-year-old reads a letter indicating that he didn’t make the cut for a neighborhood sports team. Visible emotion crosses his face. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You look disappointed, and maybe sad.”
  • 16-year-old lies across the sofa staring at the ceiling with a lost and troubled look on her face. You can’t even guess at her emotions. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you can at least say, “I sense difficult feelings right now.”

When our children receive an attuned, empathic and accepting response from us at the times their difficult emotions stir, they feel less alone, and less confused about their emotional experience through the language we give them to understand and label their feelings.2 Plus they feel better about themselves knowing their emotions aren’t somehow weird or inappropriate. Over time, our empathic attunement is an important way we promote their self-confidence and mental health.

But we don’t achieve any of that by saying, “Are you okay?”

References & Citations
  1. Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell (2003), Parenting from the Inside Out(New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.)
  2. By labeling emotions, we’re inviting the rational left brain (via the prefrontal cortex) to regain hold of the steering wheel from the emotional right brain, which had seized it and taken us on its unchecked joyride. It’s only the rational brain, the seat of logic and self-control, which can steer us wisely to a balanced and healthy destination.