Right next to my son’s kindergarten there’s a public playground, which he loves to go to after school. On one day, recently, we went there as usual, and as the kids were playing the parents were doing what most of them do on these occasions – chit chat with each other and gaze at their phones.
Then happened something that is almost inevitable in these situations: one child burst into a painful cry when another child pushed him and made him fall. The crying child’s mom watched him from her bench and idly called “Honey, nothing happened!”
If there would ever be a competition of stuff parents say that makes me queasy, “nothing happened” would be one of the top 5.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that I tend to use it every once in a while. But still, here are the reasons why I think “Nothing happened” is a something we usually shouldn’t tell our kids, plus my formula for what to say instead.
Parents need to be The Bigger and Wiser Person
Our days are full of ups-and-downs. Things happen to us all the time. Internal things like thoughts and feelings, and external things, like interactions with other people. Someone cuts us off while driving; we got a worrying email; an unexplained vague stomach ache. Good experiences affect us as well: good news in the office; a happy picture of our child in our inbox.
If you pay attention to it, you can sense all your emotions going up and down like tidal waves. Sometimes you know why they come and go. Sometimes you just don’t. And the same goes for our children.
Humans are social entities, and kids are especially so. This is why we have developed the attachment system that is triggered in times of stress. The whole purpose of the attachment system is to connect us to someone who can take care of us – physically and emotionally.
Babies cry to signal their need for help. Older kids cry as well or use other strategies to call us. They too need to feel seen and cared for, and they need to know that there’s someone who knows what to do in every situation.
It is up to us parents to be that person, that Bigger and Wiser Person, as was coined by John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory.
If we see our child in distress and our immediate reaction is to say “Nothing’s Wrong” or “Nothing Happened”, we are actually telling him that we don’t see or don’t understand what he or she is feeling.
I’m not saying that you deny their pain, not at all. Maybe you really saw them falling and bruising their knee. But the phrase Nothing Happened may carry with it the message Your Pain is insignificant, just move on.
If we do that, we are committing the sin of invalidation.
Emotional Validation is the King’s Road to Your Child
If someday governments would decide to have a parenting license exam (not that I’m condoning that) – I think that emotional validation should be one of the main topics on that exam. Just as you have to stop at a stop sign to get a driver’s license, you should also know when and how to validate your kid’s emotions.
Validation means that we are confirming the child’s experience. This is our way, as parents, to tell our kids that we see them and know what they are going through. When a baby is startled by a loud noise and starts to cry, what do you do?
You take him by the hands and give him a hug to let him feel your close and warm presence. You also say things like “Oh honey, you got really scared because of that loud noise the car made”. That’s validation. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter that this is a nonverbal baby. They don’t get it literally, but they get it via their feelings.
And this is something we need to do over and over again – when they are babies, and later when they are toddlers, and children, and teenagers, etc. By doing so you will give your kids the felt sense and the message that “I saw something happened to you. I get what happened to you. You are feeling something real because of that. And that’s totally fine.”
This type of communication is how kids learn to identify their emotions, name their emotions and handle their emotions. This is also who they learn that their parents understand them, care about them and know how to help them.
When you tell your child that nothing happened, you are doing the opposite. Let’s look at that playground story from the beginning of the post. Something really did happen to that boy who cried. Another kid pushed him over and he fell down. He may have gotten a little bruise, or maybe he just felt offended and humiliated. We can’t know until we check, but something is definitely wrong for him. Something did happen.
What Happens if We Fail to Validate
Emotional validation is so important because it’s a basic ingredient in every healthy relationship, especially the parent-child relationship. This is one of our most basic methods – as parents – to teach our kids how to experiences their feelings and accept them.
If we tell our kids that nothing happened (or, the twin-phrase Everything is alright), it’s like telling them Your distress is not real nor relevant to me.
Now, as I’ve said, I find myself dropping the ball and saying “nothing happened” myself. That’s not the end of the world if we blurt it out every now and then. We usually do so without thinking about it, more to calm ourselves than our kids. But if our relationship with the kids is defined by this kind of invalidation, several things may happen.
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Kids may actually believe that nothing happened, which may create a dissonance between their individual experience and what we tell them. If it happens a lot, they may distance themselves from their own true self and feelings and in the future, they will find it hard to notice and acknowledge that something is wrong.
Moreover, children who feel unseen by their parents may come to the conclusion that there is no one to trust in times of need. If my parents treat my pain as something you can just brush to the side or don’t regard it as painful at all, why should I express my distress in the future? It’s better for me to say nothing and get by on my own.
These are the foundations upon which defenses such as denial and suppression are built, and they are the hallmarks of people with insecure-avoidant attachment (you can read more about attachment patterns in my previous post).
The TEA Cup Approach for Helping Your Child
I don’t believe that there’s a universal, optimal response that will work like a charm for every situation. You just can’t script it.
However, I do have a 3 part formula that you can follow the next time your child shows distress. By following the TEA formula you will give your child the message he or she really needs to here.
TEA is a simple acronym that will help you remember the important factors for your response:
Tell, Explore, Acknowledge.
Let’s look at that same situation I started with – a child fell down while playing with his friends and started to cry. How could you react in this situation according to the TEA formula?
First of all, I think you should approach your child and not talk to him by calling from the other side of the playground. Children need our proximity. Our touch can be really helpful in calming them down.
Now, let’s look at the three parts:
Tell – describe the situation in a factual way. In other words, tell your child what happened. This is a way to show the child we saw something real has happened. For example: “What’s wrong? I see that you have fallen”.
Explore – Assume the role of the responsible adult and show the child you care and he or she can trust you. Instead of dismissing that something bad happened, show curiosity and explore what happened. For example: “Let’s have a look at you. Is something painful?”
Acknowledge – Remember the importance of validation? By acknowledging your child’s emotion you are validating them. Say something like “That kid pushed you and you fell over. Maybe that frightened you? Or maybe you just got hurt that he did that to you?”
After going through the 3 parts of the TEA formula, and if your child is really well, you can let him know that nothing dangerous or worrying has happened and he can continue his play.
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How to Fix If you Forget It
One more thing before we end this post. It is important to remember that you can’t always respond in this manner. For different reasons. Just remember that you always have the opportunity to fix things and make them right.
Nothing will stop you from reaching out to your kid later and talk about what happened. Here’s an example for something you may say: “Earlier you were crying, and I didn’t realize that something is really wrong. I didn’t handle things right for you and I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to be better next time”.
Taking responsibility like that is such an important message for your child. This is truly what makes a secure connection thrive.