A few days ago, my son and I endured our least favorite thing: a dentist appointment. My toddler hates even normal daily toothbrushing, so seeing the dentist is literally his version of hell. As soon as the dentist approached his mouth, he started screaming and crying as hard as I'd ever seen. "It's OK, it's OK," the dentist cooed, as I cringed while holding my shaking son. I felt for her; she was trying to do her job and teeth cleaning is important. However, are so many reasons why saying "it's OK" when kids are upset is actually hurtful, despite our best intentions. I always hated hearing it as a kid, and still get angry when I hear it now. Honestly, it's become one of my biggest pet peeves when watching people interact with my child.
Thanks to a lot of reading and work with a great therapist, I've finally figured out why I can't stand it when people say "It's OK." It's an empty phrase, offered by people who want to shut down an emotional expression because other people's emotions make them uncomfortable, or prevent them from doing what they want to do. That's understandable, but in a moment when nothing feels right, hearing "It's OK!" is the worst. At best, it gives you exactly nothing you can use to dig yourself out of whatever emotional hole you're in. Instead of reaching down to help you, it's like the person saying it is looking down at you, stranded in your awful hole, denying that the hole is even there. So, now in addition to dealing with whatever created the emotional hole, you have to deal with either feeling ashamed for being in the hole, or with the fact that the person you're with doesn't understand what's going on (or doesn't care).
Now, I totally get why a lot of people — myself included, until I intentionally set out to stop— say this to children (and adults) as a default. Most of us have grown up having our feelings dismissed in this manner, so we've never learned how to respond any differently. However, as annoying as it is to hear this as an adult, it's really problematic to hear it as a child. Unlike adults, who hopefully have enough self-confidence and perspective to be able to separate their own feelings from what other people around them are saying, kids are still learning about emotions and everything that goes along with them. When bigger people, particularly their caregivers and other adults they trust, tell them "It's OK" when they're upset it's not just hurtful; it shuts down an opportunity to empathize, connect, and teach kids how to understand and deal with their emotions. It's a short statement that, if repeated enough, contributes to long-lasting struggles with emotions and interpersonal conflict.
Though I'm focusing on why it's a problem to say "It's OK" to kids when they're upset, please know that this isn't just something that's important to rethink for kids. It’s important for dealing with anyone. “It’s OK” erects a wall between people, rather than helping us connect with someone who’s in the middle of a problem that is very real for them, no matter how small it seems to us. The next time you find yourself saying "It's OK" to a small (or big) person in distress, please reconsider, for the following reasons.
It’s Not True
If someone is visibly upset, then whatever is going is not OK. Even if what happened seems like no big deal to us, it is to them, so we should acknowledge that and help them deal with it.
Additionally, as parents, if we consistently see that our child’s reactions really are disproportionate to what’s going on, then something may be going on with them that they need our help to address. (Given how frequently adults dismiss kids’ feelings, though, we should first check in to make sure we don't have unreasonably big expectations for a small person.)
It’s Doesn’t Reflect What We Actually Mean To Convey
When we say “It’s OK,” often what we really mean is that while what they’re experiencing might be scary or upsetting, we’re there for them and they’re not in any immediate danger. So we should just say that instead, so they hear that we affirm and respect who they are, and are here to keep them safe and help them feel better.
It Confuses Kids…
In their hearts and minds, everything is not OK. So, when people they trust are telling them that it is, that causes a conflict in their minds at the precise moment they're least equipped to handle such conflict. That usually causes them to freak out more while they try to resolve that mental conflict, prolonging the meltdown we’re trying to end.
...And Teaches Them Not To Trust Their Feelings
Once the moment passes, hearing that “It’s OK” when they felt anything but, tells them that their feelings and reactions aren’t reliable. That’s a dangerous lesson to learn, since kids need to trust their gut feelings in order to stay safe. Feelings like sadness, fear, anger, and apprehension, the ones we silence with "It's OK," are often the exact internal alarm bells we want them to notice and heed when they’re in potentially dangerous situations with people who might be trying to harm them.
If someone is crossing their boundaries, trying to touch them inappropriately, trying to pressure them into a bad decision, or anything like that; the last thing we want is for them is to waste valuable time asking themselves if they’re overreacting, when they really need to react and run.
It Centers Our Discomfort With Their Emotions…
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when we see other people are upset, especially people we care about as much as we care about our kids. However, when someone is upset, telling them “It’s OK” is often about quieting their display of emotion so that we can stop feeling uncomfortable. It prioritizes our need to feel comfortable, over their more pressing need for help to resolve or deal with the source of their negative feelings.
...When We Should Be Empathizing With Them
“It’s OK” is a failure of empathy. Instead of taking a moment to see from their perspective so we can understand and affirm their feelings, we’re saying something that directly contradicts their experience. That’s a missed opportunity to help them actually feel better, and to demonstrate what it looks like to empathize with another person in distress.
However well-intentioned the speaker is, it’s dismissive for them to say “It’s OK” when someone else is having enough of a problem that they’re visibly upset. By saying this, the speaker communicates that whatever is happening doesn’t matter enough to them to attempt to understand.
It’s A Missed Opportunity To Teach Emotional Language...
Every time we tell a child “It’s OK” instead of labeling what’s actually happening to them, we forfeit a chance to teach kids how to understand and discuss emotions. If a child is upset because they’re not getting what they want, rather than telling them “It’s OK,” we should say, “It looks like you’re feeling disappointed right now. You wanted a cupcake before dinner and I said no.” (Affirming their feelings is not the same thing as giving them what they want; it's just acknowledging that how they feel about it is normal, and that they can deal with it.)
Similarly, if they’re scared because they see the doctor is getting ready to give them a shot, it’s better to say “You’re feeling afraid because you see the doctor has a needle, and you remember that that hurt last time.” If we want to reassure them that they will be OK, we can add something like, “I know shots can feel scary, but the vaccination is good for your health, and I’m here to help you feel better afterwards.”
...And Help Them Learn To Process Emotions
By telling kids that “it’s OK” when they’re feeling upset, we teach them that we expect them to stop expressing their emotions when they’re feeling bad. That forces them into a position where they have to learn to hide or ignore their own emotions, rather than learning how to feel them, process them, and then get over them (or solve the problem that gave rise to them). That’s how we end up with adults who can’t deal with their feelings, and who either vent or blow up in inappropriate or even violent ways, or who numb themselves in unhealthy ways.
It Sends The Message That Strong Emotions Are A Problem
When kids have a big, scary feeling, yet the adults around them are saying things are "OK," kids internalize that there is something wrong with them for having that feeling and they, in turn, need to stop. It teaches them to fear strong emotions, because everyone around them regards them as a problem. But emotions are a normal, healthy, and important part of life. If we want our kids to grow up to be resilient and emotionally competent, then instead of teaching kids to fear or avoid emotion, we should strive to help them learn that they can sit with a strong emotion until it passes, and come out OK on the other side.