Effectively coping with a hard situation can look a lot of different ways—especially for young children. But experts agree on one thing: Telling kids to “suck it up” doesn’t help in the moment or down the road.
“Responses to tears that are dismissive or devaluing often have more to do with a hardened heart and signal emotional defenses against vulnerable feelings,” says Dr. Deborah MacNamara. “The more room we give our children to communicate to us about their emotional world, the less likely their brain will suppress their vulnerable feelings.”
What does that mean? When kids aren’t encouraged to work through their emotions, they may just end up having more outbursts.
According to a study on “parental coping with children’s negative emotions,” which evaluated 57 preschoolers and their parents during free-play exercises, harsh reactions from parents during stressful moments had unintended consequences.
“It was concluded that distressed parents who use harsh coping strategies in response to children’s negative emotions have children who express emotion in relatively intense ways,” the researchers note in the journal Child Development. “In turn, these children find it relatively difficult to behave in a socially competent manner.”
Another study from Child Development paints a similarly cautionary picture: Children of standoffish and unresponsive parents were more demanding and clingy in preschool than peers who felt loving, secure attachments with their parents.
And, while your grandpa may have thought saying “rub some dirt in it” is the best way to toughen up kids, that’s not what experts suggest.
“If we are to play a role in our children unfolding as resilient beings, we will need to play caretaker to their heart,” says MacNamara. “We don’t need to chase them away or have them run away from their big feelings.”
She explains that in order to foster “true resilience” rather than “false resilence,” i.e. the absence of feelings, parents should encourage their children “to embrace our feelings and allow what nature has given us to be able to journey through the stress and adversity that is part of our life.”
Amy Webb, Ph.D., also says that it’s key for parents to accept stress is natural. “By overcoming obstacles and facing failure, kids build many emotional skills that are needed later in life,” says Webb.
In the moment of a tantrum or meltdown, the upside to experiencing those big emotions can be hard to see. But research backs the benefits: According to a recent study out of UC Berkley, adults who know how to accept complicated feelings rather than deny them reported fewer mood disorder symptoms than those who were critical of themselves when they felt down.
That means parents can play a big role in guarding their children against mental health struggles later in life, says senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkley. “By asking parents about their attitudes about their children’s emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children’s mental health.”
So while you may be comforting your kiddo over a stubbed toe today, that will support his ability to comfort himself over much bigger matters in the years to come.