How often do you catch yourself saying “it’s okay”?

…or “you’re okay”? They’re such common phrases that you may find yourself doing so on autopilot. At least, this was true for me. Most of us have heard these phrases all our lives, particularly when an upset child is involved. But in typical Eliza fashion, I like to take a good look at what we’re really communicating.

With our life experience, you and I know that it often is “going to be okay” (‘high brain’ analytical reasoning). But even so, in the moment we’re upset, whatever we’re feeling feels real (the limbic system in our brain, which relates to memories and emotions).

Our feelings don’t have past and future versions–a feeling itself is the same, then nor now.

A baby who’s crying legitimately does not feel okay. In other words, it’s really not “okay.” At least, not yet. Babies are very aware and remember their experiences. They need to process all these experiences and express their honest feelings; and they’ll attempt to do so …until they learn to keep them inside.

Breaking the habit

If you find yourself saying “it’s okay” (it’s a hard habit to break!), try changing it up a bit. Something like: “It’s okay to cry,” “that was scary, wasn’t it?,” “you sound angry,” “I saw you bump your head, did it hurt?”

This allows you to acknowledge the situation and your child’s feelings in place of an autopilot “it’s okay.”

Why pay attention to this?

Bypassing “it’s okay,” yet acknowledging feelings and circumstances, will help your child trust herself. It will maintain the connection she already has to her own thoughts and gut feelings.

I find that many parents feel “it’s okay” teaches their child that things really are okay, or how to regulate their feelings–that while the current predicament feels enormous, it’s really not a big deal.

Under the surface, however, what’s really going on? You see, emotions and analytical reasoning are coordinated by different areas of the brain. Emotions are the quicker response and typically need to be released before your child can fully move on. If your child feels it’s not okay but we say it is okay, we’ve just created a conflict–a confusing internal mismatch that can even lead to mistrust or denial (by her or others) of her own feelings.

By fully feeling those emotions and going through them, your child will come out the other side with a new sense of the situation. She’ll have a new read on what feels “okay,” which she’ll come to on her own, as long as she has your loving, listening attention at this early age.

It’s when feelings stay held in–for days, months, years–that our perceptions can skew, we can become confused about situations, and we never truly feel that ‘it’s okay’ even though we’ve always been told it is.

Over time, if your child encounters manipulation or a potentially abusive situation, what habits will she fall back on? Would she give in, bypassing her internal red flags because she has learned that other people know best and will tell her what’s okay and what’s not?

How do we truly help children begin to discern the difference between safe and unsafe situations? It may not always be as black-and-white as whether or not you use one particular phrase with your child. However, kicking the “it’s okay” habit will help your child trust her gut feelings and recognize when a situation really is not okay.

Avoiding “it’s okay” makes things more okay in the long run

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, avoiding “it’s okay” in that moment of upset–even when we assume from our adult perspective that it really will be okay–makes things even more okay in the end. It allows your child to let off steam, gives her space to share how she really feels, and she will truly feel better afterwards. It builds trust, honesty, and communication skills.

It helps children maintain an internal radar for authenticity–a gauge to help them recognize situations that may not actually be what they seem, especially in relation to grown ups with power.

The ability to identify our emotions is an important skill that many adults actually find very difficult. And many adults were “it’s okay”‘ed in their past… No wonder!

During the first year (and second), children internalize emotional and relational habits. Awareness of those automatic comments you say to your child will support all kinds of good stuff, including self-trust, honest communication, and emotional ‘intelligence.’ It will help avoid inadvertently overriding your child’s innate wisdom, true feelings, and desire to share honestly with you.

For more info about how to support a crying baby/child, without ignoring or distracting, see my article How to Recognize and Respond to Baby’s Stress Signals, as well as Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting books.

© Eliza Parker 2012 and 2020, All Rights Reserved