Inclusion and wellbeing

Why telling upset children "you're okay" never works

Here are three things you can say instead.
Three things you can tell an upset child instead of “You’re okay”
June 9, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Telling an upset child “you’re okay” just doesn’t work. In this story, we’ll take a look at why that is, why we even say it, and how we can take a better approach.
  • Above all, we’ve got to think less about minimizing children’s problems, and think more about helping them feel comfortable to understand and express what’s upsetting them.
  • If we look at the big picture, this story’s about how we build up children’s self-regulation skills, so they’ve got the tools to understand and process the frustrations and tough feelings we all have in early childhood.

When you’re two years old, a lot of things feel like the end of the world.

Maybe a bug landed in your juice. Maybe you got a pudding stain on your favorite shorts. Maybe your left sock is a little more droopy than the right one, and you can feel a bit of sand in there. 

Whether these problems are irreversible catastrophes is beside the point. What matters is that in the moment, they feel like disasters.

So if you’re staring down at that bug floating in your juice, and you feel a meltdown coming on, of course it’ll seem completely absurd when a grown-up tells you:

“You’re okay.”

It’d be hard to find an adult who hasn’t used the phrase to try to comfort an upset child. But the thing is, it just doesn’t work so well — and in some cases, it can make the problem worse. In this article, we’ll talk about how this problem fits into the bigger picture of self-regulation skills, and what we can do to help children tackle tricky emotions and daily frustrations when they bubble up.

So let’s look at what we need to do to move away from “you’re okay.”

Why “you’re okay” doesn’t really work

First, it’s important to understand that everybody says “you’re okay” with the best intentions. 

You want children to be okay, and to reassure them that everything will be alright. And you know that most things that upset two-year-olds aren’t really catastrophes. So of course when you say it, you really mean it.

But when you’re in a situation where you get that urge to say “you’re okay,” odds are that children just aren’t in the right state to take those words to heart.

When children get upset or stressed out, they lose access to their brains’ prefrontal cortex. That’s the logical thinking department — it’s what we’d use to remind ourselves that a spilled cup of applesauce is not, in fact, the end of life as we know it. But in the heat of the moment, our brain’s stress response overpowers the prefrontal cortex. So children just can’t use those emotional tools they need to regulate their emotions.

But also, saying “you’re okay” invalidates children’s very real feeling that, in that moment, things are not okay. 

Especially when children are just learning to understand and label their own emotions, negating what they’re feeling sends some confusing mixed signals. And if we do this too much, we risk giving them the impression that it’s not okay to share our feelings with others.

Sue Asquith, an early childhood consultant and a specialist in children’s self-regulation, explains that our biggest priority in these moments of stress should be validating and acknowledging children’s feelings.

“You want children to know they’re secure, that you’ve got their back, and you’ll help them through it,” she says. “We can treat these moments as opportunities to learn more about our children and what matters to them, rather than treating it like a challenge to wash over or sweep under the rug.”

What you can say instead of “you’re okay”

In those moments where the “you’re okay” impulse starts to bubble up, our biggest priority is teaching children that it’s alright to show and share our emotions. 

Whether or not it’s reasonable to be upset over that droopy sock isn’t important. To the three-year-old that would gladly eat a bowl of grapes and ketchup for lunch, ‘reasonable’ has never really been a big priority anyway.

So instead of saying “you’re okay,” which focuses on minimizing the problem, Sue Asquith recommends phrases which focus on validating children’s feelings. 

Here are three you might try instead:

  • I can see that you’re upset.
  • I’m here for you — I’ve got your back.
  • It’s okay to be feeling this way.

How you respond in the moment, and how you comfort children, is going to depend on each individual child. Maybe you sit down with them, or use a soft tone, give them a hug, or suggest a different activity to get their mind off the problem.

But right then and there, Sue says, it’s enough to just acknowledge that they’re upset.

“It’s not about fixing what’s gone wrong. It’s about trying to understand the situation from the child’s point of view,” she says. “Over time, we can start to understand each child’s triggers, and build up their strategy bank, so they’ve got the tools to cope with those feelings when they happen.”

The bigger picture: Building self-regulation skills

To help children deal with catastrophic events like bugs landing in their juice, we’ve got to look at building up their self-regulation skills. But that sort of learning isn’t something we can do in the meltdown moment.

As Sue explains, the teachable moment comes after the fact.

“Once the child has calmed down, you can come back to them and say, ‘Wow, that was a really powerful moment for you. I could see you were really upset about that,’” she says. 

When we revisit the problem, it’s easier to help children understand why it happened, and what they can do when they’re feeling that way. 

Here are some of the ways we might look to boost children’s self-regulation toolkits:

  • Giving children the words to describe their feelings. Oftentimes, children can’t even express what’s going on inside them, which adds another layer of frustration. Recognizing a feeling, and knowing how to share it, makes it easier to deal with the next time it happens.
  • Helping children understand what they’re sensitive to. Perhaps children are particularly upset by certain noises, physical sensations, or social situations. We can help them recognize those triggers, and anticipate when they might happen.
  • Building up children’s libraries of coping tools. Maybe it helps a child to move to another room or try a different activity when they’re upset, or perhaps there's something they can tell themselves that makes the problem seem less scary. 

Ultimately, this is about helping children build that self-regulation skill set, so that they feel confident to puzzle through frustrations and other tough feelings on their own. And when we’ve made that emotional knowledge part of children’s long-term learning, it becomes a lot easier to move away from “you’re okay.”

Top Tip: Work with parents to find self-regulation skills that suit each individual child. You might get in touch with parents to ask if there’s anything that tends to upset their child at home, and what works best to calm them when they’re upset.

The big ideas

More resources on emotions and self-regulation

If you’re looking to dive deeper into how we help children understand their emotions, you might want to check out the following books:

  • Self Regulation Skills in Young Children by Sue Asquith - Sue’s own book offers activities, case studies and explanations to help parents and practitioners understand where self-regulation skills come from, and how children build those strategies in the early years.
  • The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas - In this children’s book, a little girl teaches the colour monster (who’s feeling a whole lot of things!) how to name all those emotions, and understand what they mean.
  • Everybody Worries by John Burgerman - This free ebook gives children a story that helps them identify stresses and worries they might be feeling — and it shows that it’s alright to share those feelings with others.
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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