My son is just learning to walk in earnest, which means lots of bumps, “bonks,” and bloody lips (I think our current record is three in a week). Like most new walkers, he is surprisingly resilient and usually bounces right back up after falling on his butt 15 times in a row. However, these falls occasionally cause some tears, either from surprise or actual pain. He’s also entering the tantrum phase, where a simple correction (or missed nap or rumbly tummy) can elicit a full-body, throwing-himself-on-the-ground meltdown.
I have a close relationship with my mom and usually Facetime with her at least once a week. When she sees my son fall down and the tears well up, she tends to respond with, “You’re okay!” or “You’re fine, you don’t need to cry!” I know that this response is intended to be reassuring; my mom isn’t immune or insensitive to my son’s feelings but rather wants to teach him that this tumble isn’t the end of the world.
Children do benefit from learning how to regulate their emotions, but I feel that the automatic “you’re okay!” response that we give to young children (especially pre-verbal babies) is confusing and invalidating. If my friend ran into the corner of the coffee table and whacked her shin, I wouldn’t tell her to brush it off. I would express concern and base my next response on her own reaction. It’s her body, after all – she gets to tell me how it feels, not the other way around. Yet for some reason we’re quick to label or deny babies’ experiences and tell them to basically “stop crying and be okay right now.”
My son may not have seriously injured himself when he took a tumble off that two-inch ledge, but his tears are telling me that he experienced some degree of pain, surprise, or fear. He may be okay, but in that moment, he doesn’t feel okay. To tell him otherwise is to teach him to negate or suppress his own emotional experience.
With tantrums, our children need to feel emotionally safe with us. If I tell my son to stop crying/whining/fussing, I’m saying to him, “Your emotions are not welcome or accepted here.” As he grows, we will work to guide him into age-appropriate expressions of his feelings, but I want him to always know that the feelings themselves are allowed. He may not be allowed to throw things or hurt me in his frustration, but I will not tell him to not be frustrated. It isn’t my right to police his emotional responses, no matter how young he is.
Yes, children do need to learn emotional regulation. But what babies need to learn is how to trust their own experiences and feelings, and to be able to trust that their caregivers are attuned and responsive to them. When I rush to assure my son that he’s okay when he clearly feels otherwise, it sets up a conflict in his little brain – should he trust his own experience or what Mom is telling him? Who is correct about how he feels?
What I try to do instead is to observe and report back what I’m seeing, much as I would with a distressed client in a counseling session. For a client, I might have said, “It seems like that was really upsetting for you when your husband responded that way,” or “I can tell this is really difficult for you.” For my son, I simplify my language while keeping the same affirmation: “You’re really frustrated that I took the remote away,” or “That was a big bonk, that seemed like it scared you!” I take my cues based off his behavior, rather than dictating how I think he should respond.
Of course, we have to do some degree of guessing and projecting with these tiny humans who can’t yet tell us what’s wrong, but let’s not confuse this with telling them that nothing is wrong. If my child is crying or in distress, it’s my job to attend to those feelings – as best as I can understand them – rather than to pretend like they don’t exist or tell them to go away. I certainly don’t want to add more drama or stress to the situation by overreacting, but I also don’t want to minimize my baby’s feelings (even if I find them distressing, inconvenient, or irritating at times).
My goal is to help my son learn to identify, understand, and cope with his emotions in healthy ways. I can’t do that if I’m constantly running interference and blocking his feelings by stepping in too soon. If he falls or gets frustrated, it’s totally fine for him to be upset. It’s my job to teach him how to navigate back to calm from there, not to rush him through the discomfort. It may not be okay right now, but hopefully it will be soon, and that’s where I can help him!
It takes a village!
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