Dr. Luisa Bryce
What to Say When Your Child is Upset
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
When you’re upset, has anyone ever told you to “just stop crying” or “don’t be sad”? Is it helpful? Is it that easy just to automatically stop crying or to feel differently (aka better) at a moment when you are really down? Unless you have super powers, it’s near impossible to change how you feel at the drop of a hat. Usually comments that instruct you how to feel make you feel worse because they dismiss your emotional experience. And yet, even though these types of comments make us feel terrible, we continue to say these things to kids. Why? Because we’re human and we make mistakes. And our intentions are good… we just want our kiddos to feel better. So in order to actually aid your child in feeling better, here are a few tips on what to avoid saying when your child is upset and how to be helpful instead:
Don’t say STOP CRYING
Your child fell and skinned his elbow, accidentally broke a new toy, or lost a favorite stuffed animal. Your kiddo’s reaction? He’s beside himself sobbing. While we as adults know it’s not the end of the world, young kids live in the moment and often lack the ability to put things in perspective without the help of an adult. What you want to communicate here is that everything is going to be okay, but in order for your child to hear that, you must validate his emotional experience by saying something like “Oh honey, I can see you’re really sad right now” and then saying “It’s going to be okay, we’ll figure this out”. If you say something like “stop crying” you are teaching your child that the way he is feeling is somehow wrong, incorrect, or unjustified. You are teaching your child not to trust his emotions, which can have many negative future implications.
Don’t say THAT’S A SILLY THING TO WORRY ABOUT
Kids worry about all sorts of things- monsters, their parents being injured/dying, tornados, fires… the list is endless. When your child expresses a worry and you say “that’s a silly thing to worry about” you are again invalidating your child’s emotional experience and you’re decreasing the chances of his telling you about his feelings in the future. What you want to communicate here is that your child’s worry is irrational, not purposeful, or out of his control. But you can’t just say that. So walk your child through this process- talk about the worry and help your child to understand it. Use visuals- make a list of worries your child can control (like failing a math test) and those he can’t. Read Wilma Jean the Worry Machine to help your child gain some perspective.
Don’t say YOU DON’T GET TO BE ANGRY ABOUT THIS
Your six-year-old son got ahold of a Sharpie and colored all over the family room wall. You know he knows better so you lost your cool and started yelling, telling him he can’t have a sleepover with his buddy tonight. Now your son is angry too, and he starts yelling about how you’re the meanest parent ever. Instead of saying to your son, “This was your mistake, so you don’t get to feel angry about this,” do not react. Take a few moments, a few deep breaths, walk away for a second and compose yourself. Then model reflection of your own emotional experience by saying “Son, I am feeling really angry right now about your actions.” Then ask your son, “What emotion were you feeling when you colored on the wall?” It could be your son was angry about something else prior. Not that this excuses the behavior, but it makes it easier to understand. Try to avoid doling out consequences (that you may regret or not be able to uphold) in the heat of the moment. You may still decide losing tonight’s sleepover is an appropriate punishment, or you may come up with something more fitting for the crime (e.g. using allowance money to buy new paint and having to repair the damage to the wall).
Need more help talking to your kids? Harmony At Home can be there to guide you through more emotionally charged situations. Contact Dr. Luisa today.
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