This is why saying “it’s okay” really isn’t okay.
One of my guiding goals in parenthood is to raise my children to in tune with their own emotions. That’s why I was so taken aback when a recent article pointed out a phrase I had said with good intentions is actually a subtle form of gaslighting—aka psychologically manipulating—my child.
The phrase in question? You’re okay.
This was so often my go-to form of comfort for boo-boos that the last time my toddler son was sick, he told himself “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
But, the truth is, it’s okay not to be okay. And, as parents, we need to validate our children when they really feel sad, hurt, upset or whatever other uncomfortable emotions are natural to the human experience.
“All of us want to be heard, seen and understood, and this includes children,” says Atlanta-based child therapist Sara Anderson.
Even seemingly innocuous phrases such as “let’s move on” or “you’re going to get over this” send our children the message they are wrong to feel they way they do. In essence, this is a form of gaslighting, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Manipulating someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”
In the most common sense of gaslighting, it is done maliciously in abusive relationships. Although my intentions couldn’t have been farther from malicious, Anderson says it can still have unintended consequences: Children may begin to “cover” or hide their emotions at the expense of important life skills, such as the ability to resolve conflicts or communicate appropriately.
Start by getting comfortable with uncomfortable feelings
Justin Lioi, LCSW, says some parents go so far as banning negative emotion words like “angry” in an attempt to help their children cheer up.
“Underneath this is the parent's discomfort with their child being upset,” Lioi tells Motherly. “Both because they don't want their child to have these really upsetting emotions and they are uncomfortable with the emotion itself—especially if they're the ones who are bringing up the emotion.”
Instead, Lioi says parents have to get comfortable with uncomfortable emotions. Of course, that’s hard enough in general, but especially when it’s our children who are hurting.
Just take heart in know this difficult thing on our part is hugely important for our children long after those boo-boos heal: Studies show kids who have the emotional intelligence to label and respond to hard feelings do better in school, have more positive relationships and are more empathetic.
The alternative to gaslighting is simple: just listen
Rather than rushing to tell children how they feel, Anderson says we should take a moment to listen or even anticipate their true feelings.
“For example, if a child falls and cries, the parent can say, ‘Wow, that really hurt you,’ or even, ‘Oh, that scared you,’” Anderson says. The key difference here is that you’re validating your child. She adds, “By expressing understanding, the parent is telling the child that it is okay to feel their own feelings and that the parent is there to help the child manage these big feelings and upsetting situations.”
This is especially helpful for little ones who don’t have the words to explain themselves. And, as Anderson says, the practice can be done in all types of situations—such as saying “you were unsure about meeting that person” when your child hides from a stranger.
“By reflecting these feelings to a child, a parent is building the child’s emotional literacy,” Anderson explains. “As she becomes more verbal, she’ll have this emotional language skill to begin to name her own feelings and will feel confident doing so.”
In the long run, this is much more valuable than distracting or dismissing negative feelings. As Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says, “Labeling your emotions is key. If you can name it, you can tame it.”