5 Phrases To Use When Your Child Is Having a Hard Time

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There’s an article getting passed around on social media right now titled, “5 Phrases That Will Make Your Kids Stop Crying and Begging.”  The author sets the stage of a child who’s upset because she wasn’t allowed to get the candy she wanted at the grocery store.  Using phrases such as “Asked and answered,”  “This conversation is over,” and “The decision has been made. If you ask again there will be a consequence”  will halt such tantrums on the spot, she tells us, and remind the child who’s boss.  By the way – and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler alert – when she says, “consequence”, what she really means is “punishment”.

Now I tend to be a parent who says, “yes” as much as possible.  An occasional cookie or two before dinner, or an inexpensive impulse buy at the checkout lane don’t really rank on my list of things on which to draw a hard line.  But even if they did?  Even during those moments when I do absolutely have to say “no” to something?  (And yes, to be sure, there are moments when I need to say no)  That is a time to help them learn to work through their disappointment in a healthy way.  It’s a time to hear them, and to empathize with them.  It is NOT a time to ignore their feelings and shut them down.  It is not a time for punishing them for being human.  Being sad or disappointed sometimes is normal and okay!

Approaches like the one outlined in this article not only teach a child to squash their emotions. They are also extremely adversarial, and set up an “us vs them” mentality between parent and child.  While some parents would advise that it’s simply a matter of learning to pick your battles, I never want to view any interaction with my child as a battle.  We’re on the same team!

Here then are five alternative things I might say when my child is crying or disappointed.

  1. I’m sorry.  

    When a dear friend is venting to you because he got passed over for a promotion, do you shut him down with a “This conversation is over”?  Of course not.  You tell him you’re sorry. To a toddler, that cookie is just as important as the promotion, and his feelings of sadness are real.  I think adults probably tend to forget that, because social media has made it so easy for parents to share and pass off children’s big feelings over seemingly small things as funny or cute.  But their feelings are genuine, and because they are young, they know no other way to express them other than through crying or yelling. As a parent you can either shut them down and essentially tell them to stop feeling what they’re feeling, or you can help them work through it, and by extension eventually learn more mature or sophisticated ways of expressing their emotions.  I always strive to go with the latter, and it all starts with empathy.

  2. I hear you.  

    Or I know, or it really stinks.  I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices a lot this year, especially the last few months.  And while some of my symptoms are things that the doctor can see, or quantify on paper, some are completely subjective (like pain and fatigue.)  This past week, one of my doctors said the best thing I’d heard in months.  She said – and meant – “I believe you.”  Seriously, it was huge for me.  Anyone who’s ever suffered from a mystery ailment knows how incredibly frustrating it is to think that everyone around you is starting to believe that you’re just crazy.  I think that one of the biggest things we need and desire as humans sharing this world is just to be heard.   We want to know that someone is listening, that they are hearing what we are saying, and that they understand.  Children are no different.  Telling them that you’re sorry is a great place to start, but when you tell them that you hear them… that you understand… that YES, I know you wanted that cookie and it really sucks sometimes when we don’t get what we want… you’re taking it one step further, you’re validating their feelings, and you’re letting them know that you get it.   That is a hugely powerful and healing thing, to kids and adults alike.

  3. It’s okay to be sad.  

    Did you ever notice how often adults apologize for crying?  They’ll be engaged in a conversation, and be overcome with emotion.  They’ll well up, or a tear will escape, and they’ll shake their head and mutter, “I’m sorry,” while quickly brushing the tears away.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s because it’s such a common practice to tell kids to stop crying. Are we creating a whole society of emotionally stunted adults?  It’s okay to be sad.  It’s okay to cry.  Giving your child a safe space to feel what they feel, and letting them know – whether through words or actions – that what they’re feeling is okay goes a long way towards helping them work through their emotions.

  4. How can I help?  

    A couple of weeks ago, Tegan (7 at the time of this writing) was terribly disappointed about a cancelled play date and sleepover that she’d been so looking forward to for days.  It had been a long time since I’d seen her that disappointed about something. She didn’t want to play, didn’t want to use the computer (ordinarily one of her favorite things) and didn’t want to talk to any friends.  I hugged her, told her how sorry I was, and finally asked, “Do you want to do something with me to take your mind off it, or do you just need to be sad?”  She answered, “I just need to be sad.”  So she was.  I sat with her on the couch, and I gave her space to be sad.   I think our first response too often tends to err on the side of trying to cheer someone up, probably because we’re uncomfortable with expressions of big feelings (see number 3). But sometimes what a person needs is to just be sad.  And sometimes they do want to be cheered up!   The only way to know for sure is to ask, and in the case of a younger child, read and respect what they’re telling you non-verbally.

  5. Next time…. 

    In the case of the cancelled sleepover, there really wasn’t anything I could do to make it better, other than tell her I was sure we’d be able to reschedule for another time.  (We were, and we did, and she had a great time).  Sometimes though, depending on the child and the circumstance, it can be helpful to be specific about future plans:

    “Next time we come to the store, we’ll get a balloon.”

    “Payday is Friday, so we can get ice cream then.”

    “We don’t have time to stop at the playground today, but we can go this weekend.”  Etc.

    And then be sure to follow through!   The foundation of a good relationship with your children – of a good relationship with anyone – is trust, and letting them know 1) that you’re on their side, and 2) that your word is good goes a long way towards establishing that trust.

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Our interactions with our children should never be about manipulation and control.  They should be about connection, and about helping these little people entrusted in our care to navigate the world with kindness, compassion and respect.   Dealing with, and working through,  emotions is a big part of being human, so the last thing we want to do is deny our children that experience…. especially when they can do it with their most trusted adult at their side.

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20 Comments

Filed under gentle parenting, parenting

20 Responses to 5 Phrases To Use When Your Child Is Having a Hard Time

  1. Rachael

    I hadn’t seen this post until I saw yours. I read it and felt so upset!! I kept thinking about how disrespectful it sounded and how terrible it would be as an adult to ask someone for something and for them to respond to you as though your needs or wants didn’t matter. I have an 8 year old that has huge emotions, whether happy or upset, they are extreme and epic every time lol Shutting him down would not ever help. It’s SO hard to be calm and help him walk through things but I’d rather put in the effort than have him growing up believing all of his feelings didn’t matter. We have to help our kids understand and cope with their feeling in a healthy way.

  2. Nora

    I luv luv luv this article!!!

  3. Erin

    I enjoyed reading this artice, and I’m slightly embarrassed to share this here. I have a 4 yo girl who is super strong willed, and I will admit (hence my embarrassment) that after trying some of the empathetic listening strategies, I’ve reverted to some of the other, well, less respectful retorts. It seems my girl gets really worked up when I use the other phrases such as “I’m sorry, and I know that’s disappointing” and most especially when I ask how, or if, I can help. She will start to scream or hit and generally tantrum more.
    But also after reading your article, it makes me wonder – since she has such an intense personality – if it is me clearly being freaked out by her giant emotions, then doubting my choice to try and be more peaceful and connected (since it clearly isn’t working, or else she’d “behave” {I’m being totally sarcastic})?
    I truly question what to do when these types of more positive responses seem to have the opposite and emotionally explosive effect on my kid?

    • jen

      You know, I’m actually kind of like your daughter. 🙂 The reason the phrases I listed were all short (“I’m sorry.” vs “I’m sorry that you’re feeling this way, and…” is a personal preference thing, because I don’t like it when people get super wordy with that stuff. It starts to feel condescending and patronizing to me, and/or scripted, which also drives me nuts. I know a lot of people like Non Violent Communication (NVC) but I don’t like it at all. Too many words! Having said that… I still think that being peaceful is always the way to go. It might just be a matter of finding that sweet spot of SHOWING your daughter that you’re sorry, and that you get it, without actually SAYING it, if that makes sense? My kids are all different in that regard. My youngest, my daughter, definitely responds really well to my actually using the words, “How can I help you right now?”, but my boys definitely weren’t all receptive to that. I had to figure out how each one ticked.

    • Jomama

      Erin – I could have written your comment. This is how my 3 year old is. I try the “gentle, positive” approaches and they seem ineffective. Then I second guess everything I do to try to calm things down and start reading articles, feel overwhelmed, feel like I’m failing as a mom, etc.. So…No advice, just letting you know you’re not alone.

    • Lauren

      Erin, have you seen Dr. Laura Markham’s blog? (If you’ve ruled out the possibility that your child is just annoyed by the way you’re expressing it) she suggests that the safe space created by empathy allows a child to “unpack” their emotional baggage fully, which leads to more tears before the resolution. She recommends daily rough-and-tumble play between parent and child because laughter releases stress too, but if that doesn’t cut it she says that tears are good, and being there for your child as they work through Big Stuff is the most important thing a parent can do.
      That said, my oldest is *very* intense and I have learned that there are times when my presence just aggravates her rage further, so I leave. But I tell her when I’ll be back or that she can signal to me when she wants me and I will come.
      Last note: Dr Laura gets on my nerves at some point. I think it’s a combination of her voice (which she obviously can’t help) and how far off her suggestions are to our reality. Janet Lansbury is also good; getting both in my inbox every now and again, and spending 5 minutes reading their content, reminds me of what I’m aiming for and seems to keep us from getting too wildly off-track.

  4. Shannon

    I never say, “I’m sorry” for imposing limits because I am not sorry. It is not a mistake, I reserve “sorry” for genuine mistakes. Instead I will say, “yeah this really stinks! I wish I could xyz (eat cake and icecream for breakfast too! or stay at the park all night)” I commiserate. Then I add in why we cannot do xyz. “But if I ate cake and icecream for breakfast, I would have a BIG sugar crash and be in a terrible mood and become an angry monster. If I stayed at the park all night, the mosquitos would eat me alive and I would have no dinner because dinner is at home.” I never accept blame for something that is not worthy of it.

    Also, my kids had their own money at about 2 years old. Usually it was about $1-$2 per week. So when they wanted something at the store, the question was “Do you have enough money?” If they did and the item was not unhealthy, immoral or life threatening, they could buy it. They know that I do not buy anything in which I do not find value (that is educational or necessary). This was set up at such an early age, it was never questioned and I can honestly say the ONLY fit we ever had over something was over a Thomas Train table at Toys R US and that was the day my mother was actually buying one for the kid throwing the fit. He was so worked up he could not see the box being loaded in the car. After that, he saved up for new trains or they were given as gifts.

    And sometimes for big emotions, it just helps to label the feelings in words for them and validate the feelings, feelings are never wrong. How we manage them can be, however. Young kids have no language for some of those big feelings. “You look really angry right now! I get angry too, I understand.”

    • jen

      “I’m sorry” doesn’t have to mean that we’re accepting any blame, or that we made a mistake or did something wrong. Many times, such as in cases like this, it’s an expression of sympathy or sadness for the other person. It’s letting them know that you’re sorry that they’re sad.

  5. Linden Malki

    I still remember the time that my stront-willed and stubborn daughter (then about 4, now grown with her own family) was determined to go to Sunday School on a Thursday. Could not convince her that it couldn’t be done, and she sulked for hours. Years later I mentioned the incident and she said I should have just offered her some juice and a cracker and she would have been fine. Just goes to show that I should have dug a little deeper as to what was going on in her head..
    Growing up, I developed a lot of anger with my own mom, over her insistence that I stop crying. She could not understand that her yelling at me to stop crying only made it worse, and I totally could not stop under those conditions. If should would simply have said, “I’m sorry, you cant’ have ..whatever, or do whatever ” and left it at that, it would have blown over. What she actually did was to send me to my room for what seemed like hours, and all I did was work up a good head of self-pity. I told my husband when we were first married that if I ever got stuck in a crying jag (which I never actually did with him), to say nothing at all and just hold me. I NEVER used time-out on my own kids, and they grew up to be good people and we are still all on excellent terms.

  6. I just want to tell you how much I love this post. It doesn’t matter whether our kiddos are toddlers or teens, their feelings are just as important as ours are. Although I do the same things you mentioned, it’s a nice reminder that I am not the only parent who feels this way!

    • jen

      Thanks, Mare! And absolutely… respect for their feelings, and their right to express them, is applicable for every age.

  7. Fran

    I hear you Erin, the way our children respond to our efforts to connect more can be confusing. Sometimes they have to hold big emotions for a long time and it can take a long time to let them go once they find the connection they need. When you are peaceful and connected you offer a safe place where your daughter can let big emotions go and often a good cry is not enough. If you feel this is the right parenting approach for you, have a look at “hand in hand parenting”, it has been very helpful for me and my family.

  8. Carol G

    I love this article, and I think those phrases are very respectful to a child as a human being. I did not go read the other article mentioned at the beginning, however, I think that some of those phrases could be appropriate in certain circumstances, depending on the child. Certain children’s personalities are ones in which they will try and try and try to use their voice or their emotions to manipulate an adult into doing what they desire. In those instances, if “Yes, I agree it stinks when we can’t XYZ” hasn’t worked, then I would definitely say to my own child, “Do not continue to ask. I have given you the answer.” Empathy is important, but so is making clear that sometimes the answer is no and they need to move on. (And, for the record, I agree that a child should be allowed to express negative emotions as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else in the process.) As with anything, one answer will not work with every kid every time. Kudos to you, however, for making the point that many adults speak to kids as if they are not human beings with valid thoughts and feelings!

  9. Nomi

    This article is serious and it hits home! I feel like I could just absolutely give up on doing anything better with regards to my middle daughter, age 4,5. She can be the sweetest bundle of joy and then other times, just plain dreadful! She would yell at everyone, grab things from and punch and kick and stand on her sisters. I feel like I don’t even like her at times and find it so challenging to dig deep to find understanding and sypathy in those moments when she does things that are potentially very dangerous for her siblings ages 5,5 and 21 months. But when either of them retalliate and fight back, all hell is loose and THEN they suffer even more! I do my best to be calm but as soon as she does something like that, I just fall off the wagon! I don’t know what to do – I’m feeling very depressed that I can’t seem to gelp any of us….

  10. VERONICA

    THANKS.

  11. Mara

    What’s your suggestion for a mother of a four year old who is aggressive towards his younger and older siblings and parents in an impulsive way. He never acknowledges the pinch or ‘hug’ or hit he’s just given and is genuinely bewildered when he’s sent to time out following an incident.

  12. Eva

    love it.make sure your doctor reads it too! 🙂

  13. Karen Wood

    I like the ” I’m sorry but you can’t because ………. ” approach, to be followed if necessary by the ” i already explained it to you and you will just have to accept it and behave nicely or I will have to have you……(lose a favorite activity for an age appropriate amount of time)”…… It worked with all of the kids I baby sat and the one I raised. Respectful but firm. If fits get thrown still then time out for an age appropriate amount of time that doesn’t start until they do it quietly. None of it should be for an amount of time that’s miserable to them. They have to be able to do it. If their behavior is not changing pretty quickly then make the time amounts a little longer and have them do additional times. They will start behaving all the time and then it stops taking up so much. I never had to spend much time on it even with kids who were out of control with their parents and with me at first. When they objected to time outs I’d tell them “just do it and get it over with and then you can go play again” and they would. If they were crying becasue of getting an owie I’d tell them ” don’t worry it will feel better in a minute” and they would stop crying and panicking about it. Always be calm and business like and loving and caring. Yelling and crabbing only works short term. The calm attitude inspires calm happy kids who get along with each other better.

  14. Linda

    How different the world would be if we responded in this manner, in all our interactions, instead of repeating that message we we may have heard as children! It seems we either find ourselves echoing our parents or deciding to choose another way. I chose a similar way and have never regretted it. This is such a smart approach.

  15. Suzanne

    I think this is a good list for the exception of “I’m sorry,” In a world where women in general apologize for everything including things that aren’t their fault. I am an apologizer and I have to repeatedly explain to adults that I understand its not my fault but that I’m offering condolences. I especially don’t want my daughter to become an apologizer so i try not to apologize for anything unless I did something that warrants it (i.e. not listening, misunderstanding, or accidentally hurting my kid in some where- like brushing her hair…always a rats nest..always) I knowledge that its “crumby” that they don’t get what they want but that everyone has these same situations and feelings and perhaps we can find something else that we already have that can make them feel better? Yes, there are differences in the types of “I’m sorry” I don’t necessarily believe that children understand those nuances yet and therefore believe the parent is apologizing for some sort of infraction when you aren’t. The other material is great though. Thanks for posting!