“I had this experience many years ago, where I took my son to the doctor for his shots. He was a tiny little baby, had never even cried.”
It was his first experience of the real world. I remember handing him over to the nurse and this little boy went from ga-ga, googly, everything’s fine into this look of outrage, his first tears. I remember picking him up and trying to console him and saying to him, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’”
The nurse looked at me and she very calmly, compassionately said, “It’s not okay, Susan. Your child is experiencing pain, It will be okay, but it’s not okay” said Susan David, a psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School.
Many times, with the best of intentions, we tell our children that “nothing is wrong” or “it’s okay” when in reality it is not. We try to reassure them with those words because we can’t stand them suffering, or we want to prevent them from getting angry and we want that moment to pass as quickly as possible. It’s understandable. But it’s not good.
And it’s not right because with those phrases we rob our children of the opportunity to develop the resilience they will need in an unpredictable and complex world. We quit them the opportunity to explore their affective universe, including those unpleasant emotions that are also essential compasses for dealing with adversity.
The cost of emotional invalidation
The vast majority of adults find it difficult to deal with unpleasant emotions such as anger, frustration or sadness. Our inability to bear these emotions leads us to try to minimize the problem that generates them in most areas of our lives. It is difficult for us to accompany suffering and sadness, so if we add to this the immense love we feel for our children, it is understandable that we respond by saying that “nothing is wrong” or that “everything is fine” when it is not.
Steeped in the tyranny of happiness, a culture in which “thinking positive” is almost an imperative, we understandably want to ignore difficult emotions. However, science has shown that the more we strive to be happy, the more likely we are to open the door to sadness, frustration, and dissatisfaction.
Without realizing it, we often teach this dysfunctional pattern to children. Many times we teach them to fear unpleasant emotions, ignore and even hide them. Many times we do not allow them to feel jealous when the little brother actually receives more attention, frustration when something does not go according to their plans, anger when another child snatches a toy or anxiety in the face of a new situation. What happens, in these cases, is that children do not learn to manage those emotions.
Pretending that things are fine, when it is obvious that the child is feeling bad, is not the best way for him to learn to manage his emotions. In fact, trying to get everything back to “normal” as soon as possible robs them of the opportunity to learn to deal with those emotions and manage them assertively.
When we do not give children the opportunity to experience these emotions, they only learn to fear them, so that in the future, when they receive rejection or bad news, they will not have the necessary psychological tools to manage those situations and their emotional impact will be stronger.
What happens when “it’s okay”?
Have you ever wondered what goes through the heads of children when we tell them that nothing is wrong, but they really feel bad?
That sentence is a full-blown act of emotional invalidation. It belittles their emotions. It tells them that what they feel at the moment is not important. In effect, it tells them that what they are feeling doesn’t even exist since “everything is fine.”
Without being fully aware, we transmit implicit expectations about how to deal with their affective world through phrases like “In this family we don’t get angry”, “When you’re angry, go to your room” or “Don’t be sad or nobody will want to play with you”.
With these phrases we convey to children our expectations about their emotions. We tell them what they should feel, so they learn to classify those emotions as inappropriate and end up understanding that it is not okay to externalize them. They learn that they should not express their emotions because they are uncomfortable for others.
Thus they lose contact with their inner world. They learn to ignore or suppress their feelings. To ignore one’s own emotions and those of others. And this is how they end up becoming adults who automatically repeat that “nothing is wrong” or “everything is fine”.
But the truth is that yes, it does happen something. Because when a child falls and bruises his knee, it hurts. When he cries in the middle of the night because the light is off, it’s because he’s afraid of the dark. When he clings to the legs of his father or his mother, it is because he feels anxiety…
Acknowledge that something is happening
An essential part of education is helping our children develop emotional agility, help them manage all kinds of emotions. It is not about letting them have a tantrum or allowing them to hit their little sister or another child because they are angry, but about teaching them to assertively express those emotions.
The mission of parents is to accompany their children through this affective journey, beginning with emotional validation, which implies accepting emotions and feelings by giving them a name.
In fact, research shows that at ages two and three, if we ask our children, “Are you feeling angry or sad?” they are able to begin to develop a basic affective language with some emotional granularity.
To do this, we must talk more often about how we feel and how they feel. Instead of saying “nothing is wrong” or “everything is fine” we should say: “I see you feel bad. What has happened to you? or “I know you’ve hurt yourself and now it hurts a lot, but it will soon go away” or “I see you’re not well, what would help you feel better?”
A wonderful research conducted at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel shows that when we are simply present with our children as they go through difficult times, we can reduce tension and suffering even before we speak. Acknowledging what is happening to them by fully sharing their experience has an almost magical power, because suddenly the child understands that he no longer has to continue showing his pain or suffering since his parents have understood him. Then the healing process begins.
Rheel, E. et. Al. (2022) The Impact of Parental Presence on Their Children During Painful Medical Procedures: A Systematic Review. Pain Med; 23(5): 912-933.
Bastian, B. et. Al. (2012) Feeling bad about being sad: the role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion; 12 (1): 69-80.
Wellman, H. M. et. Al. (1995) Early understanding of emotion: Evidence from natural language. Cognition and Emotion; 9(2-3): 117–149.