This episode was recorded just before the COVID-19 outbreak really hit everything, schools closed, etc. However, it is still as relevant. In it, I'm talking about what's wrong with telling your child that “everything's ok” or “nothing happened” when he or she fell down, is hurt by something, or has any other negative feeling.
The problem with this kind of response is that something DID happen, and by saying otherwise, we are invalidating our child's feelings. In the episode, I explain why it's so wrong and offer the simple TEA formula that will help you respond in a more optimal way.
- The importance of emotional validation
- The TEA formula for better emotional validation
Resources Mentioned in The Episode
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Right next to my son's school is a public playground, which he loves to go to after school. Recently we went there as usual and as the kids were playing while their parents were doing what most of them do on these occasions (myself sometimes included), they chat with each other and they gaze at their phones.
And then something happened that is almost inevitable in those situations. One child suddenly burst into a painful cry when another child pushed him and made him fall. The crying child's mom looked up from her phone and called “Honey, it's okay, nothing happened”.
And let me tell you if there would ever be a competition of stuff that parents say that makes me queasy. Well, “it's okay nothing happened” would be on the top five. In today's episode, I'm going to break down exactly why I hate that expression, and I'm going to give you a simple formula of what you can say instead. So the intro and we’re starting.
Hello, my friends and welcome to episode nine of The Apparently Parent Podcast. How are you feeling? Is everything okay? Maybe not? Well, as you know, that's our topic for today. What's the problem with telling our kids that nothing happened or everything's okay. Other similar phrases are “there is nothing to be afraid of”, or “there's nothing to cry about” etc.
So in order to understand why those phrases are problematic, we need to understand something about the Attachment system. If you listened to the first episode of this podcast you know about The Parenting MAP, which is the framework that can help you steer your parenting ship into peaceful waters. If you need a reminder, the parenting MAP stands for mindfulness, attachment, and purpose. And if you don't remember what I'm talking about, I'm gonna put a link in the show notes of this episode, you can listen to the first episode where I break down the parenting MAP for you.
But for now, let's start talking about attachment. Attachment is a theory in psychology and according to the attachment theory, we are all born with a system that is hardwired into our brains, and it's called the attachment system. It has one purpose and one purpose only: to protect us. The attachment system is triggered in times of stress. Okay, if something frightens us or we feel something stressful around us or inside us, then the attachment system kicks in. And when the attachment system kicks in, it triggers certain kinds of behaviors: attachment behaviors. And those are certain behaviors with one sole purpose, getting an adult to take care of us. So think of a little baby, okay? The little baby is cold all of a sudden or is hungry. Or maybe there was some noise that scared the little baby. So what do babies do? They start to cry, these are attachment behaviors, with the sole purpose of getting the mother or the father of that baby to take care of them.
Think about young children, like three years old, four years old, etc. They cry they get angry, they call for help. I remember one time when my child, my firstborn was, I think two years old and he saw something on on on a TV that scared him, some animation that for some reason was scary for him, and I still, a couple of years later, I still remember his face as he ran towards me calling “daddy! daddy!”.
And again, all those behaviors are targeted at the attachment figures who are usually the parents, okay. And the parents are what John Bowlby, who was the originator of the attachment theory, called “the bigger and the wiser” in this relationship, because it's up to us to be bigger, In age and physically bigger. We can instill a sense of security in our children. And we are also wiser, which means we know more about the world. We can explain the world to children and this also gives them confidence.
And as soon as we feel taken care of and seen, we start to relax, okay, just as a baby starts to relax when you take him in your hands and you hold him close, and calm him by singing, by feeding him, etc.
Now, daily things happen to us all the time, both good things and bad things, both internal things like thoughts, memories, internal sensations, and external things. Something happened in your job, an angry text you got from a friend, etc. Now the external things are easy to see, okay, if a kid falls down and scrapes a knee, you can easily see it okay? If a student gets an F on a test, you can easily see it, if a parent is struggling to make breakfast and get out of the house in time to bring the kids to school and to get to his job, you can see it, it's something external that is easy to see. However, internal things are harder to see. A kid who is falling down may feel sad about what happened. Maybe his friend pushed him in and made him sad. The student that got an F maybe he fears or she fears that his or her parents are going to react badly to this grade. This is internally you can see the parent who is stressed about getting out of the house and time in the morning, maybe you cannot see the inner stress that he or she feels as they think about the boss that is already all over their case because of coming late, etc.
So, during the day, we always have these ups and downs and in some things we can’t see, not on our kids, not on our spouses and sometimes we don't even see it in ourselves. But if we pay attention to it, by being mindful, we can actually notice the ebbs and flows of our emotional life.
And we can learn to notice the ebbs and flows of the emotional lives of those around us, at least to some degree. And as humans, we are social creatures. We have this need to be seen. To be known to need someone to be with us when we suffer, okay? We want our emotions to be held by someone else. And that someone is usually our care caregivers. So children's caregivers are the parents that that's you for your children. And if you're in a romantic relationship, the spouse is also kind of a caregiver for you, etc.
So if you go back to the situation I described at the beginning of the episode, the child that fell down because the kid pushed him, and his mom told him that nothing's wrong and he should just continue playing. What's going on there? Okay. So if we go back for a second to the story that began this episode, okay, the key that fell down in the playground, and his mom looked up and told him something simple, like, nothing happened. Just continue playing. Okay, what's wrong with that? Why does it make me queasy when I hear that kind of phrase?
So if we tell someone who is hurting that nothing is wrong, or everything's okay, we are giving him the message that we can't or won't see his distress. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about denial, okay? That mother clearly saw that her child fell down, okay? It's not that she's denying reality, you may have seen that something happened, but those words are sending the message that the pain that he feels is insignificant. It's just like saying nothing to see here, move along, okay. And if you do these, you kind of fail in one of parenting’s most important jobs, which is validation.
If there was ever a licensing exam for parenthood, and I don't think that we should have one, but if there was one, I think validation should be a main topic on that exam. So let's talk about what validation means, and why do I think it's so important?
Validation means confirming one's experience. Okay. It means telling your kids that you see them and you see their feelings. And it means acknowledging what someone else is going through. Again think of a little baby who starts to cry because of some loud noise around him. Okay? What do you do when that happens? You pick the baby in your hands, you hold the baby, you hug him or her, you sooth, you see, you explain something like Oh honey, that noise really scared you right? And even though a little baby doesn't understand your words you know in your gut, in your heart that you should say something like that. It's almost an intuition kind of thing to do. And that's what validation is all about.
Because you acknowledge that something bad happened. If you acknowledge there's a negative emotion you're not trying to dismiss it. You don’t want to say to a little baby, oh, stop crying there's nothing to cry about, okay, or nothing happened. You will say something like you're really scared and right now, that really scared you but that's okay. That's fine, I'm here with you.
Okay, so first we're validating and then we're moving into soothing and calming the child. And this is something you usually do with little babies. It's natural to us, but we should continue doing it with our little kids and also our older kids. And you know what, also with teenagers and adults, okay? We just have to adjust our wards to the appropriate age.
This is so important to validate emotions because this is how kids learn to identify and name their emotions. Think about a three years old who is angry because you told him he can't have another candy after dinner. Okay? He may be really sad about it. He may be really angry about it, but he probably won't be able to tell you, Mom, I'm sad, am I and I'm angry because you're not giving me another candy. He's three years old. He doesn't know, he doesn't have the language yet to first recognize his own image and express them in that kind of adult way.
Okay, so what will three years old do? They will throw a tantrum probably. But by validating the child's emotion and talking to the child about his emotions, naming his emotions, etc, we are teaching the child what he's feeling, how to notice his feeling, how to recognize his feeling and how to name his feelings and well how to express his feelings in a more productive kind of way.
So this is how children learn, to recognize their emotions and talk about them. And this is also how they learn that you, the parent, care about them, okay? And that you can and you want to help them handle their emotions and by saying emotions, I mean, all their emotions, the good emotions, and the bad emotions. So again, if we think about this story from the beginning of the episode, the problem with the response of the mother was the lack of visitation. Okay? Because the mom said to the kid, nothing happened. You know, maybe that's true. Maybe he didn't really hurt himself physically okay? But something did happen. He fell down. He was pushed by another kid. Maybe he's in pain. Okay, maybe he didn't hurt him physically, or even if he didn't scrape a knee or I don't know, didn't break the skin, okay? Maybe he's in physical pain just because he fell down.
But even if he's not in physical pain, maybe he's emotionally hurt by the other child who pushed him down, right? So just imagine that kid in the middle of the playground, crying, looking up and searching for his mom, searching for her eyes, her soothing eyes, and this is a child who is in that moment, he's left alone with his emotions.
So let me say it as bluntly as possible. Emotional validation is the bread and butter of every relationship. It's so basic, and it's so crucial that a healthy relationship cannot sustain itself without it. And this is especially true for the relationship between you and your child.
If you tell your child that nothing happened and that everything's okay, you're actually telling them that their distress is irrelevant to you. And by doing so, you may be teaching your child that they should hide their emotions away because you can handle them. Because if no one cares, if no one takes a moment to look inside the child and see what's really going on, why put the effort of saying what's wrong?
This is why we sometimes get children who will say, well, everything's fine. Well, clearly, everything is not fine. And I'm not only talking about major issues like I don't know, but the child is also being bullied at school and children hitting him or stealing his lunch money, or something of the sort, this is relevant for everything, okay? For little things that happened that hurt the child's emotions.
And don't get me wrong. I also fail with this sometimes as well. I still do. Sometimes I can tell my children that it's all good. Nothing happened. It's part of our nature as parents, as humans alike, I do believe that it also helps us to do it because as parents, we want to feel that nothing's happened. We want to calm ourselves down and feel that everything's okay. Okay, we see the child falling now and we get scared, we get worried. So we instantly want to calm ourselves down. It's only natural, okay? So don't worry. If you do say something like that to your kids. The trick is to notice it after the fact, and then do something about it. Because a validation that comes late is much better than no validation at all. I'll say it again because it's really important, validation that comes late is much better than no validation at all.
So if you do say something like nothing happened, and then you catch yourself and you're a little bit angry with yourself first remember, try not to be too judgmental with yourself, okay? Your human and you're prone to make mistakes. And the most important thing for maintaining a secure attachment with your children is not to avoid mistakes. It's to correct the mistakes after the fact. You remember the second episode of this podcast and I will link to it in the show notes of this episode, you can listen to that episode where I talk about how important it is not to try to be perfect parents, but to be good enough parents and being good enough parents means that we make mistakes but we also correct the mistakes.
So what do you do if you catch yourself with this quote-unquote mistake? You can go to your child after the fact and tell him something like I'm sorry that I didn't ask you what's wrong earlier, that I immediately said that nothing is wrong. But then I realized maybe something was wrong. Maybe you felt alone, or angry, or sad and I want you to know that I want to notice that and you can always tell me what's going on with you even if you're angry with me, I want to know, I want to be a better parent for you. This is how I can do it if you share it with me.
Now, I wish I could offer you one universal response that will always be optimal for every situation, but alas, I can't. What I can offer you is a simple map, something that you can memorize and pull out when you suddenly find yourself in front of a distressed child. And that is the TEA cup formula. And I call it the TEA cup formula only because you can use the acronym T-E-A, to remember it by.
And it breaks down to tell, explore and acknowledge, so if you find yourself in a situation when your child fell down, okay, again as the beginning of this episode, and that mother saw her child falling down, and maybe she saw that another kid pushed him down, etc, she would want to respond according to the formula.
So first things first, get up and go to your child. Okay, if you're not near your child go to the child. They need proximity when in times of stress, the attachment system seeks proximity to the caregiver, okay.
Go to the child physically get on your knees to his level if you need to, and then follow the TEA formula. Now, if you're not near your child, if you have you're having this conversation over the phone, for example, you are at work and maybe you have another child who got back from school, and he's calling you and he's distressed about something that happened, take the moment to put yourself away from your work for a second and use the TEA cup in order to talk with each other about what's going on. So, yeah, there is no physical proximity, but there is emotional proximity in that way.
So, tell, explore and acknowledge, let's break them down. So the first part is tell. You should tell the child what happened. Describe the situation in a factual way. In other words, just tell your child what happened. This is a way to show the child that you saw something real that was happening. And it may sound stupid because the child knows what happened. Sometimes the child is telling you what happened. But this is a way of reflecting to the child, that you know exactly what happened, that you noticed everything that happened. And it's also opening an opportunity to make corrections. So, for example, if I go back to the mother with the child in the playground, okay, how she would tell the child what happened, she could go up to him and kneel in front of him and maybe put a hand on him because physical touch is a kind of relaxing, and then she can say something like, what's wrong? I see that you fell down. Or maybe what's wrong, honey, I see you falling down. I see that Dan, maybe that's the name of the other kid, He pushed you.
Okay, just stating what happened in a factual way. Now we move on to explore. We're assuming the role of the responsible adult and we're showing the child that we care about what he or she feels, and we are telling them that he or she can trust us with their emotions. So instead of dismissing and saying something like nothing really happened, okay, show curiosity and explore what happened. For example, say something like let me have a look at you okay? Is something painful? Are you hurt? This is in the physical sense okay? Then we can move on to the emotional sense. What are you feeling right now? Okay, this is a great question to ask even if we don't expect our children to know how to answer it because this is opening an opportunity to explore what's going on inside especially for little children. Okay, when I'm saying little children I'm usually talking about children under six or seven years old. In that matter for them, we should and we could offer options okay. Like reopening a menu with options. So are you sad that you fell down? Are you angry that you fell down and are you angry with the other kid? Are you angry at all? Are you afraid? Just think about yourself. Appropriate kinds of emotions in those situations. Okay? So think about what are the possible emotions and offer them to your child.
And the last part of the TEA formula is acknowledge. Remember the importance of validation by acknowledging your child's emotion. You're validating them. So you can say something like, well, that kid pushed you and you fell over, maybe that frightened you, or maybe you just got hurt that he did that to you. Okay, so this is acknowledging the emotions.
It's easy to break them apart, just remember them by the TEA formula. But you see how it's all tied up together in a sentence. You fell over. It's telling. Maybe that frightened, so that's exploring and also acknowledging at the same time. Maybe you got hurt, maybe you were scared, whatever. Okay. And you can add something like it's okay if you are I would be scared. If I was in that situation for example, okay not appropriate to this a falling down maybe example but for other examples, okay, I would be angry, etc so these are all tied up together.
But you know putting neatly in like an acronym like teacup formula makes it easier to remember now after you go through the three parts of the TEA formula and if your child is really well physically you can let him know that nothing dangerous or worrying has happened and he can continue to play.
So after you go through this then you can say something like well nothing really bad happened to you. You're okay you're not hurt, okay? So if you want to continue playing just do it or whatever, okay? But it's a whole different from saying nothing happened or everything's okay upfront. So this is okay just for a quick recapping of this episode, we talked about the problem of telling our kids that nothing happened when something clearly bad happened. And it's not only really huge in really, really bad things, it can also be simple things, small things that happen to them and maybe created some emotional disturbance, some negative emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc. And usually we parents, we don't want disruptions, we want to sail as smoothly as possible, right? So by saying something like nothing really happened, it's okay, we kind of calming ourselves down, but we missing something really important we missing what our child really feels, or may feel. And by doing so, you kind of send the message that you can’t handle those emotions. And we don't want to handle those emotions.
So the child is kind of left alone with those emotions. And as we were talking about attachment, this is really bad for attachment, this kind of breaks the security that the child needs. So instead of saying something like nothing really happened, you should try and use something like that. The formula which I offered you, which means we tell the child what happened, we explore the emotions of what's going on inside the child at that moment. And we acknowledge every emotion that the child may have. And by doing so, we're validating the child's emotions, we are validating the child's needs of security.
And then we can move on, then we can soothe and calm and put things into proportions and move on. And by doing so, we teach the child how to recognize his or her emotions, how to name their emotions, and how to express their emotions. And then as adults, they could do it as well. Okay, think about your child as an adult, I don't know 30 years old, adult in a meaningful romantic relationship, being able to be vulnerable and express their emotions to their spouse, and how different it would be than a person in that age who is not able to express their emotions because they're used to people not really caring about them, or not really expressing their care about their emotions. It's a huge difference.
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The Apparently Parent Podcast
On this show, I share with you my perspectives and experience of parenting and psychology.
Enhance your understanding of the relationship with your child and yourself by learning about attachment, mindful and playful parenting mindset and techniques.
Listen to me sharing my knowledge and experience both as a parent and a therapist, as well as interviews with parenting experts from around the world.
Your Host – Eran Katz
I’m a clinical psychologist and parenting counselor specializing in attachment theory. I’m also the father of two children who are my best parenting teachers.
I believe that parenting is one of the most important jobs we ever do. This is why I created Apparently Parent and The Parenting MAP. My goal in life is to help as many parents as possible become 21st Century Parents, moving from chaos to harmony and building an enduring, meaningful relationship with their children.