Your Parenting Mojo

054: Three reasons not to say "You’re OK!"

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“I hear parents on the playground all the time saying “You’re OK!” after their child falls over. Often it does make the child stop crying…but doesn’t it invalidate the child’s feelings?”

It turns out that this question is related to a skill that psychologists call emotional regulation, and learning how to regulate emotions is one of the most important tasks of childhood.

This to-the-point episode is a trial of a shorter form of episode after listeners told me this show is “very dense.”  It’s hard to back off the density, but I can back off the length.  Let me know (via email or the Contact Me, page – not the comments on this episode because I get inundated with spam) what you think…

Other episodes referenced in this show

How parenting affects children’s development

How divorce impacts children’s development

How to scaffold children’s learning

 

References

Brookshire, B. (2013, May 8). Psychology is WEIRD: Western college students are not the best representatives of human emotion, behavior, and sexuality. Slate. Retrieved from www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/weird_psychology_social_science_researchers_rely_too_much_on_western_college.html

Duncan, L.G., Coatsworth, J.D., & Greenberg, M.T. (2009). A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent-child relationships and prevention research. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review 12, 255-270.

Keane, S.P., & Calkins, S.D. (2004). Predicting kindergarten peer social status from toddler and preschool problem behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 32(4), 409-423.

Kopystynska, O., Paschall, K.W., Barnett, M.A., & Curran, M.A. (2017). Patterns of interparental conflict, parenting, and children’s emotional insecurity: A person-centered approach. Journal of Family Psychology 31(7), 922-932.

Roemer, L., Williston, S.K., & Rollins, L.G. (2015). Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology 3, 52-57.

Rotenberg, K.J., & Eisenberg, N. (1997). Developmental differences in the understanding of and reaction to others’ inhibition of emotional expression. Developmental Psychology 33(3), 526-537.

Sasser, T.R., Bierman, K.L., & Heinrichs, B. (2015). Executive functioning and school adjustment: The mediational role of pre-kindergarten learning-related behaviors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30(A), 70-79.

Swain, J.E., Kim, P., & Ho, S.S. (2011). Neuroendocrinology of parental response to baby-cry. Journal of Neuroendochrinology 23(11), 1036-1041.

Trommsdorff, G. (2010). Preschool girls’ distress and mothers’ sensitivity in Japan and Germany. European Journal of Developmental Psychology 7(3), 350-370.

 

Read Full Transcript


Transcript

Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.

While I was still pregnant with my daughter, a friend showed me a video of a toddler falling down a flight of stairs.  Once he has tumbled all the way to the bottom he immediately bounces up and announces loudly for anyone who might be around: “I’m OK! I’m OK!”

At the time I thought that was pretty cool.  Who wouldn’t want a child who can roll with the tumbles of life and be fine with it?

I was working on some mental and emotional pregnancy exercises from a book at the time, one of which instructed me to write down my hopes for my yet-unborn daughter.  In the beautiful book that I made for her by hand (and that I hope to one day give to her), the third entry on my list of “My hopes for you” was “I hope you’ll be the kind of kid who gets up after a fall and says I’m OK!”

Fortunately, through studying for a Master’s in Psychology and through researching podcast episodes for you, my wishes for my daughter, as well as my skills, have evolved – but I’m still learning all the time.

Recently, one of my podcast listeners emailed me with a question:

“I hear parents on the playground all the time saying “You’re OK!” after their child falls over.  Often it does make the child stop crying…but doesn’t it invalidate the child’s feelings?”

It turns out that this question is related to a skill that psychologists call emotional regulation, and learning how to regulate emotions is one of the most important tasks of childhood. There are three major ways that children learn about emotional regulation.  The first of these is through direct teaching of emotional regulation – for example, by saying things like ‘you’re OK!.’  The second is through parental modeling of emotional regulation, and because I’ve been getting feedback from listeners saying that they LOVE my show but find the content to be very dense, we’re going to try a little experiment here and break these two topics down into two episodes.  They’re not actually going to be any less dense than my regular episodes (although I really make no apology for that), but hopefully making them shorter will help them to be a bit more digestible anyway.  I’d like you to let me know what you think about this, so do drop me a line at jen@yourparentingmojo.com with any feedback.

The third way children learn about emotional regulation is the emotional climate of the family, which includes parent-child attachment, the romantic attachment of the parents, and the presence/absence of marital conflict (and how this is resolved).  We’ve covered a lot of this information in other shows already – like in our interview with Dr. Laura Froyen on how parenting affects child development, as well as in the episode related to how divorce impacts children, which contained a lot of information on how conflict affects children, and how resolving conflict productively can actually be very helpful for children to observe.  For that reason we’re not going to do a third show on this particular aspect of emotional regulation but go ahead – show affection to your partner!  Be romantic!  Your kid is watching…

So there are three critical reasons we need to support our children’s emotional regulation.  Firstly, emotional regulation directly impacts an individual’s wellbeing, because emotions have a physical impact on both children and adults.  Stress can have direct physiological effects on a person, like increasing blood pressure, it can impact behaviors related to wellbeing like alcohol and substance use and abuse, and can contribute to mental wellness or illness, for example, depression (Butler 2013).

Secondly, emotional regulation helps children to make (and keep friends) – aggressive boys and girls who fail to share and who get peers in trouble find it hard to make friends.

And finally, emotional regulation is really important for academic achievement – pre-kindergarten skills related to emotional regulation actually predict later academic skills probably because children who can sit still even when they want to fidget and ignore a taunting classmate are more likely to stay on-task with the lesson.

What I wanted to know next was “can scientists help us to understand how our actions as parents impact our children’s emotional regulation?”  It turns out that there’s no one “aha!” study that neatly addresses these issues.  But a whole slew of studies cast light on different pieces of the puzzle.

 

There are two key ideas behind the incongruence of saying “You’re OK” to Western children:

Firstly, emotional expression is culturally driven.  We Westerners tend to think that pretty much everyone thinks (or should think) like us.  While differences between individuals in a culture do, of course, exist, in general researchers assume that “people strive for independence, self-fulfillment, and authentic expression of emotions based on autonomy” (Trommsdorff & Heikamp 2013, p.70) – but in many Asian societies this is not a goal for raising children.

Instead, Asian parents aim to know what their child needs before the child even says it (Tromsdorff & Heikamp 2013).  Chinese children see this control as an expression of warmth and support, whereas European-American children find it stifling.

Most psychological research that makes it into journals is conducted on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (or WEIRD)  WEIRD college students, and then researchers assume it’s applicable to all Americans, and maybe even people everywhere.  But the ‘hot’ way of studying the cultural issues behind emotionally-driven behavior is to put some Western and some Japanese people in an uncomfortable situation and see what happens – they use Japanese people because the Japanese are typically considered the paragon of the Asian interdependent cultures.

When researchers gave Japanese and German preschool girls a task that they could not possibly complete, German girls experienced distress associated with their failure for much longer than Japanese girls, whose distress quickly disappeared – to be expected in a culture where such expression is typically avoided.  The girls’ mothers were present during the experiment: German mothers expressed warmth to their daughters after the girls failed at the task, and the more sensitive the mother the more distress the girls expressed – in other words, the girls cried more, perhaps because the German mothers felt as though the girls were expressing their authentic emotions and so did not try to get the girls to stop crying.

So if we put all this together, we see that telling a child how they feel (or should feel) is a strategy that is really not well-suited to raising children in a society where autonomy and independence are prized.  We are attempting to control their experience of the world, which would help to build warmth between Chinese-American children and their parents, but which European-American children see as overly controlling.  German mothers seem to have it figured out – their children might cry more as a result, but they learn the validity of their own emotions.  It seems as though if American parents really do prize autonomy and independence, it would be a whole lot less confusing for their children if they were also a bit more tolerant of the expression of emotions that can be seen as negative, like crying.

 

The second reason why it’s incongruent for Westerners to tell their children “you’re OK” is that children’s emotional regulation develops as they age.

Perhaps this won’t be terribly surprising to parents: emotional regulation before age three months is thought to be driven largely by innate processes – things like turning toward pleasant stimuli like a parent’s face, and away from aversive stimuli like a loud noise.  By age one, babies know that other people can help them to regulate their emotional states, and by age two they can use specific strategies to manage their own feelings (although they aren’t always successful, which is why they have tantrums) (Calkins & Hill 2007).

The way children think about controlling emotions also changes as they get older.  Young children seem to believe that parents can actually change children’s emotions simply by saying “stop crying,” but older children and adults recognize that you don’t stop feeling something just because someone else tells you to – you just stop expressing the emotion.  As we’ll see in our next episode, this can have very negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing.

So we do need to adjust our approach as our child gets older, and we can use what psychologists call scaffolding to offer our children more support when they are younger (or hungry, or tired) and gradually withdraw that support as they get better at regulating their own emotions.  As a reminder, we did a whole episode pretty early on in the show on how to use scaffolding to increase children’s abilities.

 

So what should we understand from these studies?

Firstly, we socialize our children to succeed in our culture, and we should use strategies to help our children succeed in our culture (unless we might think that our culture relies just a touch too much on individualism, in which case we might want to adjust our approach slightly…).

Telling Western children “You’re OK!” when they’re clearly not flies in the face of all the other lessons we try to teach them about living their own experience and respecting their feelings.  It might stop them from crying, but it’s incredibly conflicting for them – we’re suddenly using strategies more suited to socializing in Asian cultures for no apparent reason.

Secondly, while our youngest children might think that we can change how they feel just by telling them, but eventually they figure out that we can’t, and they feel gypped.

Finally, by supporting our children as they develop their own emotional control skills (rather than just telling them they’re OK) we equip them with critical skills they need to succeed in learning and in life.

So why do we continue to tell our children they’re OK when they clearly know they’re not (and, if we’re honest, so do we)?  The only explanation I can come up with is that we really hate to hear our children cry.  We’re wired to make it stop as fast as we can, which we do by soothing our infants, and when they get old enough that we can’t easily soothe them any more we try to get them to stop using whatever means we can – even if it doesn’t benefit our children at all, and may instead impede their emotional regulation skill development.

 

Al well and good, I hear you say, but what should we do instead of saying “You’re OK?”

So next time your child falls at the playground, consider taking these four actions:

  1. And Watch

Don’t go running over.  Cement yourself to that park bench if necessary.

Look to see whether your child is really hurt.  If he really is, go over immediately.  If it’s more likely to be just a bump, sit tight a little longer.

 

  1. Set an Intention

Use this time to check in and see how you’re feeling.  Bring your full awareness to the moment and set an intention to respond with your child’s best interest in mind.  Are you anxious?  Take a breath.  Resolve to not say “You’re OK.”

 

  1. Act

Reassess what your child needs.  If he’s not already up and running around, walk over and sit next to him.  Say something like “Ouch – that looked like it hurt.  Do you need a hug?” (for younger children).  “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?” (for older children).  Provide a hug (or not) accordingly.

Sit quietly until your child seems to calm himself.  When your child is ready, consider replaying the incident without judgment: “It looked like you were walking along the beam and you lost your balance.”  Empathize and acknowledge any new feelings that occur.

 

  1. Move on

When your child is ready, ask a question.  “Would you like to sit here with me for a bit longer or are you ready to play again?” or “Would you like to play some more or would you rather go home now?”  He may have other ideas about what he wants to do, but you may find giving him ideas to be more effective than just asking “what do you want to do now?,” which may simply elicit an “I don’t know.”

 

 

When you have time, you may find deeper reflection on this topic helpful.

 

  1. You may find that saying “You’re OK!” has become reflexive for you – you don’t even think about it before you say it. If this is the case, try first simply to notice when you say it – without judging yourself.  Then try to institute the pause that gives you the time you need to think and say something different.

 

  1. Spend some time thinking about what skills you think feel are important for your child to learn, and how you can support those through your relationship. If emotional awareness is high on the list, think about the messages you send your child when you discuss those emotions.  If you find that you frequently invalidate those emotions (e.g. “Of course you want to go to school!  You love your teacher!” or “Why wouldn’t you want to go to the party?  All your friends will be there!”) then your words may contradict your intention.  Don’t be afraid to let your child experience her own sadness, frustration, and anger, even as you support her by empathizing with her.  Your child learns more by experiencing them and dealing with them than by suppressing them because you don’t want to hear about them.

 

  1. Cultivate a practice of mindfulness – of being in and experiencing the present moment, which can help you to institute that all-important pause, as well as develop your own healthy emotional regulation skills. I’m working on finding someone who might be interested in talking with us about bringing a practice of mindfulness to our parenting, so stay tuned for that.

 

As always, the references for today’s show can be found on my website at www.yourparentingmojo.com/youreok, and please do let me know your thoughts on this shorter episode format by sending an email to jen@yourparentingmojo.com


Also published on Medium.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

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