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Take a Closer Look

We typically try to restore our children’s happiness when they feel upset. We want to cheer them up or make their problem go away. It’s partly for their benefit, and partly to help us feel better. After all, it’s hard to witness them feeling emotional pain. Their distress can trigger our own painful emotions, which we must set aside in order to focus on what our kids are experiencing. In When It Hurts, the mother offers her daughter two key elements:  

Name Their Emotions

Mom makes some educated guesses about how her daughter feels and names those emotions, specifically suggesting upset and fear. The girl nods when she hears her mother’s words, indicating that mom’s guesses are correct. There’s healing power when we’re emotionally seen and heard, when we’re given the room to name and experience our emotions — for children and adults both.  

In a situation like we see in this video, parents typically say “you’re okay” when there’s no sign of serious injury. But physical injury isn’t the only kind that matters. For kids — for any of us — emotional injury can sometimes be the greater of the two. After finding no scrapes or bruises to her daughter’s knees, this mother might have said, “you’re okay.” However, she wisely avoids that knee-jerk response, knowing it would be confusing for her daughter who was not feeling okay emotionally. Accepting mom’s “you’re okay” would require the girl to deny her own emotional reality — a deeply unhealthy situation for any child to experience. How can I trust my feelings when they don’t match what my parent is telling me?

Validate Their Emotions

Mom lets her daughter know that her emotions make sense. She says, “It hurts to fall off a bike,” and later, “It’s upsetting to fall, isn’t it?” In this way, mom helps her daughter connect the dots and understand how her emotions follow logically from the experience she had. Of course we don’t always understand our children’s emotions or recognize what triggers them. That need not prevent us from validating their emotions nonetheless by saying, “I understand how, from your perspective, you feel the way you do.”   

Our kids don’t usually need cheering up in their tough moments. They need to feel seen and heard in their distress, and empathic listening is the way to deliver that (see Trusting Emotions). Through mom’s empathic listening, it doesn’t take long for the girl to be healed and restored, eager to climb back on her bike.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.