Giving Your Children the Brush-Off

It always jars me when a child is hurt — on the playground, in a soccer game, or just horsing around — and when he tearfully staggers towards his parents, he is immediately directed to “brush it off.”  His natural reaction to pain and injury is perceived as babyish, weak and unappealing, or at least inconvenient for others to see or hear. Rather, he is supposed to be tough, suck it up and ignore his feelings.  The child takes a deep breath and usually obeys.  But I wonder, is it possible to brush off feelings?

If we could really brush away all our feelings, just imagine how neat and tidy life would be!

Imagine this… It begins with a newborn. Instead of receiving mechanical swings and pacifiers as shower gifts, expectant parents are given a special brush, the “Easy-Off Pain Remover” with its patented “anti-emotive, no tears formula.” When a baby makes even a peep, she is gently brushed over her torso, from chest to belly, and voila! The feelings are brushed away like specks of lint, and then, while wearing a ‘gasp mask,’ parents carefully sweep the baby’s feelings up and pour them out into a special re-psycho-able, insanitary container.  (Well worth the trouble to never have to hear a baby cry!)

And, as children grow, they are taught to self-brush uncomfortable feelings. They learn to “get it off their chest”, literally, from the age of 2. Since everyone learns how to groom their feelings, the human experience loses its nasty, rough edges. Everyone is calm, contented, and emotionally self-sufficient. Life no longer zigs and zags wildly like Space Mountain at Disneyland.  It is a smooth, elevated ride on the Monorail.

In reality, of course, life without emotion would be dull as lint.  The disownment of discomfort, pain or sorrow would mean the death of joy and ecstasy. There is no yang without yin. Devoid of passion, we would no longer be inspired to create art, music, or literature.

Our pain, like our joy, is connected to who we are. Ultimately, it is our soul.  When we whisper to a baby, “Shush, don’t cry,” when we tell a hurt toddler, “You’re okay,” or ask him to “brush it off,” our intent is to calm the child, but what message are we sending?  The child does not feel okay.  The parent’s well-meaning words convey to him that his feelings must be wrong, or at least unimportant.

We all want to raise healthy children with strong coping skills, but a child who is not allowed the opportunity to express his feelings fully, to ride out waves of emotion to the end, does not acquire the basic knowledge that all feelings pass. No matter how horrendous we feel in the trench of the wave, the pain gradually subsides, and we can move on.  So, when we are allowed those experiences as children, we gain self-confidence.  We still feel the pain of the next wave, but we know it will crest and that we will survive. We can cope. Pain strengthens us.

So, since feelings cannot literally be swept away, we must work to be patient, calm ourselves, and acknowledge a child’s feelings, rather than rushing in to arrest them.   Then we can imagine another future, one where we are free to be our most joyful, sorrowful, beautiful, ugly selves, and embrace the highs and lows of a messy, imperfect, but authentic life.


I share more about nurturing emotional health in 

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I have to admit Janet, I am guilty of the “brush off.” But even understanding it and having it held up to see clearly, I don’t believe I would choose differently in all cases.

    My son was on the front lines in Fallujah. He was the second wave in when it was the hottest place next to Baghdad. I remember talking to him and hearing his fright. I didn’t choose to make him feel better, not at all. I was tough, insensitive, and abrupt. For me, my only single concern was to do all I could do to bring him home safe. I spoke to him “man to man” so to speak and cut him no slack. I told him exactly what you warn against, “to suck it up!” I told him he did not have the luxury to whine, cry or even contemplate. For a soldier, like the police and firemen, that “edge” is what keeps them on their toes and keeps them alive. I wanted my son to be on his. The job I saw for myself at that moment in time was to make him as sharp as absolutely possible. I told him in no uncertain terms, to do the job he was trained to do. Unfortunately, that meant getting the enemy before they got him. I know how another might read these words and think to themselves, “what an @#$!” But this was an instance when “feeling good” took a back seat to just about everything else. And I believe, those are the words he needed. He didn’t a shoulder, a pat on the back, or nice blanket to hold on to, he was looking for and needed to be reminded what was at stake. And sparing you and your readers the details, I did exactly that. But in the course of the pep-talk, I did tell him that when he got home he was welcome to cry his heart out for so long as needed to, but only when he got home.

    I have to admit, I too was scared. I said my son’s eulogy over in my head a hundred times. For any parent with a child in combat it is a horrific experience. His mom could cry, but not me. I saw my job to make my son about as tough as anything that walked the earth. His life depended on him being meaner, faster, and better that his adversary. Old fashioned, sexist, whatever, I did what I believed I had to do. And as I admit at the beginning, I would do it again.

    It took him about two years to recover. And I was concerned and I spent numerous hours speaking with others, including counselors who understood better than I. It was hard to give him his emotions and watch him suffer, but I knew too that I could never understand what he felt. I followed the advice of people just like you and gave him his time. I remained observant and alert, but otherwise gave him those feelings of pain, anguish and torment, and allowed them to run their course. And today, as I have mentioned before, he is doing phenominal!

    One other thing I told him while he was there, was to pray for his enemy. To ask that their souls be caught by the hands of the Father before their bodies ever touched the ground. My son is wonderful man. I am proud both that he fights for his country and that he anguishes over having to do it. He is a man of honor. Hard when appropriate, soft when appropriate.

    Getting back on subject, child care is not easy and certainly no game. Insight, understanding and an open mind is so very important. That those are but a few of the several things I enjoy about your articles. If we are open minded, which I hope for our childrens’ sake we all are, we are forced to think, and hopefully realize we are not wizards. And that sharing can make a big difference in all of us growing and perhaps more importantly, passing along that growth to generations to come.

    I am certainly not a “by the book” dad. I just can’t be, I am guided by good advice, my spirituality, and old fashioned values. But certainly I’m open minded as well, so I hope. And I continue to study and learn even as my son is twenty-four now. So, again, thank you for sharing all you do with all of us. No matter how old I get or my son gets, I’m always a father and I’ll always be be challenged.

    1. Ed Stagg: I agree with you 100%. Janet’s parenting advice does not apply to grown men in combat. Basic training clearly establishes the military’s view on a soldier’s feelings: stuff with extreme prejudice — live to cry another day.

      Janet, perhaps you need a disclaimer on your home page?

      Somewhat in jest,

      – Grace

      1. Imagine a world where soldiers were not able to deaden their own emotions enough to kill the ‘enemy’. Might even be what that Jesus guy was on about. Then maybe the soldiers wouldn’t come home & assault their families or commit suicide at the horrific rates that they do.

        1. And maybe there wouldn’t be war at all. If people were in tune with their human frailty and that of the other and held it well war would be less and the suffering and pain that it spreads would be transformed. Idealistic I know, but true ❤️

    2. I would like to politely disagree and say, from my very personal experience in combat, not just deployment but in actual combat ( I was EOD, the military’s bomb squad), that when I had talked to my family during my time, hearing those words would’ve made me not want to talk to them and when I could sense my truths were too much, I did stop saying them and have not told the entire truth to them even though it’s been almost 10 years. We all know what has to be done there, we do it. We see horrible things, and willing to do the hardest things on the worst days, to ensure those to the left and right of us get home safe so being reminded of that does not help. We come to those that we love and be vulnerable because we need to let some of it go, we need to speak to the existence of what we are witnessing and be validated that, yes it is indeed INSANE, and hear “yes I want to hear about your hardships so that you are a little lighter the next day.” I broke things off with a serious boyfriend, even when I knew there was a proposal waiting for me, because he couldn’t stomach what I was telling him about my day-to-day life. It was hard for those closest to me to hear how I cried for the people of the country I was in, while also being okay with doing what has to be done in combat (in the kindest possible terms I can muster). It left me feeling so disconnected from everyone I loved, like an alien from another planet.

      Yes, even grown men in combat do not need to hear “suck it up” and move on from our parents. We hear that from everywhere else, I promise you that message is being heard loud and clear. When we return home, we remember all the people who told us to “suck it up” and we will always think twice before sharing our “demons” with them once again. We need to hear the kindest things when we are going through the hardest times and not when it’s most convenient to do so.

      I only mention this, not to attack you, it’s very clear you love your son and said what you did with the sole intention of getting him back home, but in case there is another parent scrolling through this and somehow it pertains to them, or even a spouse. Sometimes you only get one chance where they’ll be vulnerable with you and if they feel that you brush it off, that door will not open easily again. All people need to feel validated and have their truth be heard, especially when those truths and feelings are the hardest to swallow. Acceptance is the cure to so much anguish.

      1. I agree. Well said. Acceptance, feel the feeling. We are not hallow blocks or we weren’t born with a heart that feels like stone or metal.

  2. I don’t know that I’d be quite so hard on Janet’s post Grace. As a general proposition I agree with Janet. Even being old fashion and very traditonal, I have encouraged my son to express his feelings no matter what they are. In fact, he was always allowed to disagree with me and show anger, frustration, etc., so long as it was done with a bit of respect. I believed that allowed him the healthy ability to vent while learning how to do it in acceptable manner. And I will admit, there were times when he was right and I was wrong. He learned trust for me when I was willing to listen and when due, apologize or whatever the situation called for. It was that exact trust we had for one another that allowed him to be honest when he was scared, for me to be honest in my response, and for him to trust in what I had to say.

    There are times when one characterist dominates another, and I believe, rightfully so. But hopefully we teach our children understanding for their feelings and which ones are appropriate under pevailing circumstances.

    I have done my best over the years to follow the advice that Janet professes in her article and even now I continue to work on that attitude. I was only sharing a time when an authoritative approach was, in my opinion, the better one.

    I believe in the saying that “we don’t raise children, we raise adults.” Children have a unique ability to know children stuff. But we are preparing them for their adult lives. Under ordinary circumstances, I think that even the most traditional man should be able to express himself well and openly. Let’s be honest that is not always the case. Janet’s article speaks to that I believe and a character trait that will serve the men of tomorrow well. I think we’d save more marriages and see far less infighting among numerous different relationships if we could all feel safe and confident speaking freely and honestly. My son did, for if he hadn’t, I might never have known to be there for him when he needed me the most. I depended on his ability to express himself and I thank God he could accept my honesty in telling him what he needed, if even he didn’t want to hear it. In a manner of speaking, it was my son that allowed me to do my job.

    There is no way to cover any topic considering every possibility. So we speak to one or two things at a time. All advice should be but only pieces to a much larger puzzle. It’s up to us to piece them together. Every parent is different as is every child. Some pieces work, others don’t. But I’m alway greatful to have all the pieces at my disposal to call on if and or when I might need them.

    1. Ed, I am so glad you were/are strong for your son and helped him survive those incredibly difficult times. I think that since you raised him with that openness and respect towards his feelings, I am sure he realized you are only tough with him when you absolutely need to be. And thank God he survived and was able to come home and work through all his emotions in a safe place. Maybe that is the key here with Respectful Parenting? Janet’s articles assume families are in a physically safe place to be able to help kids express their emotions? I’m sure we will all scream and yell or be tough when needed if our child is in physical danger, and deal with the emotional aftermath later. Just thinking through this, I feel like in sports also, there maybe isn’t always time to express our emotions and concentration is needed to succeed. And then taking this one step further, in our careers as adults, we cannot always express our emotions at our workplace because it can be distracting and/or weaken your position (for instance, crying at work can undermine your position but in other cases it can be necessary to cry – for instance, medical professionals after dealing with life and death matters). So I guess I’m just working through this, but maybe respectful parenting is about helping children learn how to express their emotions in a safe place with people that love them and care about them. Anyway, I totally agree that being mentally tough is necessary in some circumstances. Ed, I appreciated your thoughtful responses and pray for our soldiers every day. God bless!

  3. This is a really interesting post. I sometimes am guilty of the brush off. I weigh up the situation, if they are really hurt, I comfort them.
    I never really thought of the effects of the brush off until now, thank you.

  4. In my toddler’s native language the expression used is “Oops! Nothing happened…”. From day one I always reminded the people around my baby that we must acknowledge that something did in fact happen and deal with it, rather than brush it off as you: Janet, put it, so appropriately.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard that one, too. Isn’t that the classic way to make someone believe they are crazy…tell the person that something they’ve experienced didn’t really happen?

      1. I always say to my daughter when she falls or something “are you okay or do you need love?” Most of the time when she falls I wont even get a chance to say anything she will shout “Lina okay” or “I’m okay” Then other times she will kind of look at me and I will say are you sure you’re okay and she will shake her head no and I will give her a kiss or a hug. She is only 2.5! I love that she can claim how she feels. She has learned to ask me to. The other day I coughed a couple of times and she said “mommy ,okay?” I said “oh yeah I’m fine thanks for asking. love you” It was a really sweet interaction.

  5. (Commenting without reading the first few comments.)

    Well said, Janet.

    We chose to (ahem, I taught Hubby to) validate first, and then if it seemed appropriate, prompt a self-assessment from our child. After a brief visual exam and comforting touch, “Are you going to be alright?” Or, “What should we do about this?” Or, “What are you going to do about it?”

    (Hoping to come back later and delve into the conversation above.)

    1. Barbara,

      Sounds perfect. Thank you for sharing the wonderful suggestions.

  6. Great article Janet.

    Just wondering if you have other practical suggestions of what to do and say in such situations?


    1. Cinta, thanks! I like @Barbara’s line of thinking. When a very young child or baby is crying I like to go over what happened while I acknowledge the feelings… “You tripped on this toy here and fell. That hurts,” and maybe ask, “Do you want me to pick you up? a hug? an ice pack?” etc, depending on the situation and age of the child.

      I allow the crying to continue as long as it needs to, even if it seems like a huge overreaction. Sometimes that means taking a deep breath and calming myself to find patience. If crying continues, I might comment again. “That fall really upset you.” Or “You really didn’t like that loud noise.” The idea is not to assume the feelings, but just acknowledge what you are sure of…that the child is upset. We may not know for sure whether it is anger, embarrassment, fear, surprise, physical pain, etc.

      If you have a specific situation in mind, I’d be glad to give thoughts…

      There’s an interesting recent discussion thread in the community section regarding 2 year olds releasing feelings through tantrums.

  7. Janet – This is an interesting post as has many things for all parents to consider. Thank You. Some children do learn to create moments that will lure a parent into empathy, compassion, tenderness, etc. It becomes a “game,” much like crying when a parent leaves a child in anothers care only to have the “tears” stop abruptly the moment the parent has left. Children KNOW who they can manipulate best…in most cases, it is the primary caregiver…be it Mom or Dad. As parents, our “hearts” are often TOO close to the tears be objective about the REASON for them. In teaching our children, we must not only be emphatic and compassionate to REAL crying; but learn when our children are “playing us” and encourage them to find some other way to express what they are feeling. It is our job to teach them when crying is appropriate and when it is not. When really hurt or injured, yes. To “tug” at someones heart to get what we want…probably not.

    1. Darla, I understand your point-of-view and thank you for sharing it. I believe there is a big difference between allowing feelings to be expressed and giving in to them. No, we don’t stop in our tracks and change our mind about a rule, a limit, or about leaving because our child disagrees or has an emotional response. When we leave our child with another and he cries, I believe it’s best to acknowledge, “I hear you not wanting me to go. I’ll be back later,” and then GO with the confidence that we’ve chosen good care for our child. Then, hopefully, if there are tears after we leave, the caregiver or teacher will allow and encourage them, allow our child to grieve our absence rather than telling him he’s okay and shouldn’t cry.

      I think it is presumptuous and even dangerous for us to be deciding whether any other person’s feelings are “real” or not. With inappropriate actions like hitting — YES, we set limits. But crying should always be acceptable, in my opinion. In my experience, children do not cry to manipulate unless it habitually “works” for them, or they are used to their parents reacting with panic, annoyance or anger to their tears.

      1. Agreeing with you, (again) Janet. Children learn to manipulate by means of the responses adults give them.

        Also have to pitch-in my reminder of the developmental/maturation differences among ‘children’. We respond differently to babies, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 6-year-olds, and so on. At fairly regular intervals, a parent should be advancing the expectations of the child to self-manage emotions and increase responsibility for self.

  8. Janet – I agree, to some extent:) What I’m talking about are those times when children DO know that it works…and more often than not, children are very good at deciphering what DOES and DOES not work. It is harder for parents to distinguish at times because our hearts are so intuned to our children. They may cry in the toy aisle and we KNOW that they want the toy, but are also overtired. Just because both are present, does not make the behavior of crying or tantrams an acceptable behavior. How can we help teach our children self-control if we allow crying over things that should not necessitate it? I hope that makes sense. It DOES NOT mean that we cannot show compassion, but that we should say, “I know you are tired and WANT the toy, but crying is not an acceptable way to get it.” We can discuss when we CAN get the toy and go home to rest. Pick them up and carry them out if necessary:) A little rest and a conversation about when the toy can be earned or purchased will HELP rather than allowing the crying to persist in the middle of a dept. store. If allowed, the behavior will repeat itself and we have caused, not only our child, but ourselves more difficulty in stopping the negative behavior.

    1. Darla, with all respect, I still disagree with treating crying and tantrums as unacceptable behaviors. I understand how difficult it is for parents to hear crying, but rather than use that as a reason to try to stop the crying, I believe we need to bite the bullet, allow it, but continue to say “NO” to the toy, or whatever it is. Yes, crying is an unacceptable way to “get” anything but it is always an acceptable way to express feelings (if we want to ensure our child’s healthy emotional development).

      I would say something similar to what you said, “You sound tired and upset. I know you want that toy, but we won’t be buying it today.” Then, if the crying continues, “You sound too upset and tired to be here. We’re going home.”

      Ideally, we wouldn’t take a tired child to the dept. store, and I agree with you that if he begins crying or having a tantrum in public we should take him home if at all possible, but I would never ever tell a child he shouldn’t cry.

      1. Janet -I am having trouble with an almost 7 year old who seems to have “regressed” in the last month- into reacting to frustrating experiences with inappropriate behavior/tantruming – we are trying to figure out the root causebut meanwhile can you please post links to articles about how to handle limit setting (i.e. no hitting/kicking mom, no throwing glasses off your face) while acknowledging the feelings. Yesterday I took your advice and once he stopped trying to hit me I held him like a baby and let him vent it out (I was silent but he knew he was being held/cared for). He only hits at me -no one else -and does not hit other children, ever. Thanks -any links would be helpful.

        1. Hi Deena, I think one of Janet’s strategies for this would be to hold the child’s arms (gently but as firmly as needed to prevent them from hitting) and say “I’m not going to let you hit me” or something similar. Allow them to cry or scream but prevent hitting by physically blocking. If it is over a limit you have set you wouldn’t give in but just acknowledge “I know you are really upset about that.”

          1. Hi Deanna,
            Janet posted something a week or so ago, or maybe I was scrolling through a week ago and found a post from a lady called Lori
            Petro, Teach Through Love. She is someone who is very much in the same page as Janet. I hope it’s ok to mention her here. I found a set of cards she sells. She has a site with lots of free content too (This isn’t an ad nor am I affiliated- please remove this post if you feel it’s inappropriate) I found the way that she frames common challenging situations with these cards, and scaffolds the language to use to communicate in these tough yet very ordinary situations, is so helpful.
            I’ve begun to understand that it back to me to feel what my kid’s limit challenging wakes in me, accepting that, acknowledging that’s my work to do while genuinely connecting with my child. Holding open a space where it’s safe for them to communicate objections and disagreements and still hold your own intention of what you want for yourself and/ or for you both in this situation, in a clear and present way. Another super parenting advisor I love is Dr Vanessa Lapointe. It’s sometimes helpful to hear a couple of people come at the same idea in their own way.

  9. Janet

    Thank you for addressing this topic. Obviously, this kind of subject has as many approaches as there are situations. I like the way you present it and the comments are all very interesting.

  10. Alexandra says:

    Thank you for this post. As always, thought provoking.
    Instead of brushing off pain or discomfort, I have been absolutely thrilled with a technique that I have been practicing, which I learned recently in my RIE class from other parent-participants in the class, and underscored by the instructor, Carole Pinto.
    Basically, this technique is a process of verbalizing my child’s discomforts, expressing through words and language for her.
    For example, if she falls and hits her head, I look at her, calmly, keeping my responses as warmly-neutral as possible. I move nearby her and wait, allow her to initiate coming as close physically towards me as she needs to. Then if she continues to seem upset I narrate what happened with simple language, watching her responses:
    “You bumped your head on the table. Then you cried.” I gesture towards my own forehead and then touch the table as I speak. Then I wait, see if she still seems upset. Then I say the same words again, objectively reporting what happened. I repeat as many times as seems necessary. It is incredible to me how she consistently responds. She will cry for a second, breathe, seeming to work through the “trauma”. Then she might touch her head, or gesture to the place where she fell, and babble, looking at me meaningfully. I will tell the story again, very calmly. I ask if she would like a hug. I make it clear that I am with her in her discomfort, attempting to leave my own feelings out of the way, aiming to offer space for her to move through her feelings as powerful as they might be. And when she is ready to move on, we move on.
    The process fosters calm around a potentially anxiety-provoking trauma, and seems to support skills of resiliency. My child definitely does not always want or need the telling, sometimes she shows/tells me what happened and then moves on. Carole added to this – watch her, to make sure it’s not just a monologue but really supporting her to move through the process if she needs it.
    Recently I was supporting Eliana in this process. A friend who was nearby mentioned that she had read an article about supporting older children with active-listening skills when they come to a parent seeking support. This is supportive to the development of self-esteem for the older child. I am sure that this process offers a similar kind of support to a one-year old. In addition, it is clear to me that this process helps a young child who is processing big, possibly scary feelings by helping the feelings be visible. Through articulating what has happened I help her make her experiences be more tangible and therefore manageable.

    Is this from process from Magda Gerber? Is there a name for this process?
    Thanks as always!

    1. Alexandra, thank you for describing so articulately (as always) this response to a toddler’s minor injury. Yes, this is what Magda Gerber taught us and I’m not aware of a particular name for it. As you said, it is waiting a moment to gauge our child’s response rather than rushing in (and projecting panic which can then upset the child further) and then acknowledging and reflecting upon what happened. Yes, much of what Magda Gerber taught was about observing objectively, getting our “feelings out of the way” and projecting calm. Our children are so sensitive to our responses and feelings. If we can remain supportive, accepting, non-judgmental and patient about our child expressing feelings, she learns to process them in a healthy manner.

      When we reflect on the incident with our child we don’t have to repeat the story again and again. It should feel very natural, like the way we would respond to an adult who was injured and couldn’t speak clearly. We wouldn’t rush over in a panic because that might upset the person, and we wouldn’t tell him or her to “brush off” the feelings.

    2. What a beautiful process, Alexandra!

  11. I have had to work very hard to avoid the “don’t cry” or “you’re OK” responses, which seem to be what immediately come to mind for most parents. It was also very difficult at first to resist rushing over and grabbing my daughter when she hurt herself. It’s gotten easier as she as gotten older and become more verbal. At 22 months old she now says “uh-oh, fell” or “oops, slipped”, often before I know what’s happened. I acknowledge it and ask her if she is OK. Most of the time she will either say yes or move on to something else. If she comes over to me or says something like “upset” or “hurt elbow”, then I know she wants comfort. I tell her I am sorry that she is upset and hurt, and I give her a hug.

    It is more difficult to acknowledge feelings (and not show my own) when she is crying over something that seems very insignificant, or when she is throwing a tantrum because she doesn’t want to do something that’s necessary. Thank you for this piece reminding us that feelings are always valid. I wish I had found your blog, and learned about RIE, when my daughter was an infant!

    1. Shanna, those things you describe are hard for all of us. I’ve found it helpful to remember that these seemingly extreme, indulgent and over-the-top outbursts are, more often than not, a healthy release of pent-up feelings that may have little to do with the matter at hand. Getting the feelings out is always healthy and good. So, instead of feeling frustrated and annoyed, know that you are being a FANTASTIC parent whenever you can let go and calm yourself enough to allow your child these emotional eruptions.

  12. Thank you for this post. I think this is such a difficult concept for so many adults because they too receive messages to avoid discomfort and strong emotions. Asking caregivers to welcome children’s emotional expressions requires them to be comfortable with their own emotional experiences. To be able to sit with an emotion, ride the wave, and let it pass, is a skill that many adults need to cultivate – especially if they want to support children.

    In my work, I often talk with caregivers and educarers about children’s social and emotional development — and I continually find myself reflecting on how important it is for adults to reflect back on themselves — critically considering their understandings, biases and behavior, in order to free themselves from their own unhealthy patterns and become available to nurture and support their child’s healthy growth and development.

    Not easy work, but the profound effect it has on a persons ability to nurture another is certianly worth the hardwork and effort.

    I also think that when adults share how they are feeling with children (in healthy appropriate ways) they send a powerful message that emotions are a natural part of the human experience, and create a meaningful conversation that is critical to developing deep relationships.

    1. Such important work, Beth. So glad you are doing that. Yes, this is all about comfort with our own emotions, because this discomfort gets passed down generation to generation… perhaps stemming from primitive times when babies and young children needed to be kept quiet for survival’s sake. On the bright side, I’ve found that encouraging our children to feel the things we may have been subtly, or not so subtly discouraged from feeling can be a healing process for us.

  13. Thanks for this post. It’s always nice to hear that others recognize the feelings of our youngest children as valid and important. As an early childhood professional, I too have experienced a billion ‘boo-boos’ and other miscellaneous hurts with my children.
    Recently I have begun to consider the necessity of not only honoring their feelings and giving them a voice (using adult labels for the feelings) but also helping them to deal with these feelings right from the start. In the last year, I have been fortunate to have two wonderful boys in my classroom who have cyanotic and pallid spells caused by breath holding in response to pain for frustration.
    Long story short, we have made a practice of using deep breaths (or ‘blowing bubbles’ as we call it) to keep our bodies calm throughout the day. We talk about how good our bodies feel and about how calm it feels after we breathe in all the good air. As the children are so young, it probably doesn’t make the most sense but they do seem to enjoy the sensation. Then when something upsetting occurs the real magic happens. The children naturally come for comfort, which they are readily given as described in both the post and the responses. Sometimes, the need for comfort takes a while which is just fine.
    Then as the child begins to calm, we suggest taking deep breaths. Often, they are not ready to do so, but we still model the behavior. Not only does it help the adult to remain calm and supportive of the child, it helps the child to calm themselves!
    As many have said, children need to have coping skills. However, to really cope with pain and frustration the experience MUST be recognized by adult and child and then be given a name so the child is able to learn to recall the feeling on their own. (Brushing it off doesn’t give the child this opportunity.) That being said, sympathy also needs to be accompanied by a strategy to empower the child the own his or her emotions and experiences. Whether it’s deep breathing, getting a hug, or using words to describe a situation the child should always be offered a chance to face their pain and move forward rather than suppress until it happens again.

  14. Wendy Bergonse says:

    I believe it should be fairly obvious that she is referring to little children and teaching them about managing their feelings, not grown men in combat…

  15. Tracey Anne says:

    This is a subject I am trying to learn more about. I am trying to learn RIE principles, although I have a lot to learn!

    I have an eight month old baby boy who is crawling and learning (teaching himself) to stand. Inevitably he falls and bumps his head or gets a fright and cries.

    I observe him and leave it to him to initiate comfort by crawling over to me and crawling onto my lap. When he does this I try and validate his feelings (“I see you got a big fright. I’m sorry you feel sad” or similar), give him a cuddle, tell him I love him and let him cry. Usually he is quickly distracted as he can spy other toys from his new vantage point and crawls off my lap to retrieve them. But sometimes my response seems to fail him – he cries and cries until he is hysterical and not able to calm himself at all – this despite me cuddling him and talking to him calmly.

    I’ve observed my husband in the same situation and he usually responds with a traditional “You’ll be alright”, a big hug and a walk around the room until the tears are forgotten. Within a few moments the baby is happy again, smiling, laughing and playing.

    I don’t believe an eight month old can fake emotions. Surely he is genuinely happier with this approach than when he is hysterical in my arms?

    I’d love some practical advice on how I can validate my son’s crying while still offering actual comfort.

    1. Tracey Anne: Maybe Janet will be able to give you better advice, but I think you are actually offering comfort already. Your husband is distracting your son from his strong feelings – so he is smiling and laughing in a few moments. You are giving him space to work through not just the fall of that moment, but all those times in the day when his father distracted him, or when he distracted himself before he had worked through the feelings he had. I think that sometimes we think ‘hysterical’ has to be stopped. But often hysterical is the result of the previous ‘stopping’ of the expression of emotions throughout the day (or days) and the build up results in hysterical. But I think you can trust that your child’s body is equipped with its own ways (hormone release is one) to counter physical reactions that feel too strong, and trust that your loving and accepting presence is enough.

      1. Heather, thank you so much for this response to Tracey Anne. I definitely couldn’t have said it better.

  16. I’ve always been one to watch and observe, as my kids have been the type to know themselves quite well. If they are hurt, they cry, if not they get up and keep going.
    I have found it has been helpful in times of great crisis, to be able to start to show them ways to cope. This is especially true in medical and other high stress situations, where what’s happening is beyond their scope of understanding. Acknowledging and talking through what’s going to happen, what is happening, and validating feelings (not just brushing them off) does indeed make a difference.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think there are times when kids should be allowed to simply express feelings on their own and ride it out, knowing we love them and support them, and there are other times when stepping in and helping them cope through it are really important. And I think these things are different.

  17. I feel it is important to mention, as well as the immeasurable benefits to our children, it is also amazing for our relationship with them for us to be able to stay and support their strong emotions without judgement. Now that I have become more confident in this process, I find that my son is more connected to me, more affectionate and cooperative, and increasingly able to handle difficulties without a meltdown (he is 2.5). We still have tantrums and they are often BIG and LONG, but when we (my husband or I) give those intense emotions the time and space to explode and then pass we find our son comes out of it a much happier and loving person. And one that sleeps better!! And it feels so much more right to me to be compassionate and supportive than it felt to be impatient and judgmental. Trying to curb a tantrum felt terrible and put a wall between my expressive child and myself.
    I have also observed that my son’s tantrums, at least, often are set off by minor things. It is hard not to feel like he is overreacting. But I suspect the tantrums are actually related to stored tension rather than the minor limit or disappointment he is facing. With that in mind I now am comfortable “setting him off” by holding limits, knowing that he might just be looking for an opportunity to express his discontent and that if I allow it, he will be grateful and our bond solidified once again.

  18. I always look forward to your new posts, Janet, and appreciate this one as well! I’ve often cringed when parents of toddlers break into a chorus of cheers when their little one trips or falls down–distracting him from the opportunity to investigate his feelings and response for himself (and I do suspect this is even more of a problem for parents of little boys).

    So I couldn’t agree more about the value, and beauty, of accepting, supporting and validating young children’s and babies’ emotions. I have been careful to practice this with my daughter since she was 7 or 8 months old and she is an exceptionally very resilient and loving little person.

    However, like some of your other commenters, I wonder about the relationship between this practice of acceptance and validation and the eventual development of those important life skills of coping in the midst of stressful situations (Deb). I would agree that babies and toddlers shouldn’t be expected to “cope.” But sometimes, for adults and even older children, certain situations require immediate emotions to be controlled or set aside for the moment (Ed Stagg’s example of a grown son in combat would be an extreme example of this).

    Maybe the idea is that learning to recognize and accept one’s emotions in some way enables one to control them when necessary down the line (whether that control is socially mandated, as in, it’s not okay to cry in a professional meeting, or required for safety, as in, it’s not okay to give in to tears and fears when a building is on fire and direct action is needed)? Who better to maintain a clear head in such situations than someone confident in herself? Someone who knows his own capacity to respond appropriately in the moment and come out stronger on the other side?

    1. Erin, I believe you nailed the answer here: Maybe the idea is that learning to recognize and accept one’s emotions in some way enables one to control them when necessary down the line (whether that control is socially mandated, as in, it’s not okay to cry in a professional meeting, or required for safety, as in, it’s not okay to give in to tears and fears when a building is on fire and direct action is needed)? Who better to maintain a clear head in such situations than someone confident in herself? Someone who knows his own capacity to respond appropriately in the moment and come out stronger on the other side?

  19. Always a good reminder. Out of bad habit, I sometimes fall into the brush it off, however I continue to practice and remind myself that I should check in and identify the feelings and just give comfort. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  20. I enjoyed this post. I run a playgroup in the mornings with just seven 2-3 yr olds. I always let them have a little cry and comfort them if they get hurt and then the tears turn off and we move on 🙂

  21. Dear Janet,

    I follow your post avidly, even though I don’t always comment, thinking that you already have a lot of post to reply to. I thought this is as good a time as any, to thank you for your wonderful and noble work of teaching, how to care for the next generation. So thank you! 🙂

    Regarding your above article, one of my automatic responses after my daughters are hurt due to a fall is to apologies! It sounds odd but I often tell them that I am so sorry that they have hurt themselves! My feeling is that it comes from my deep rooted feeling of guilt that I carry due to my lack of self esteem! should I stop myself from apologizing?

  22. I am loving your posts, Janet, as a 2nd time mom! I agree that it is always important to validate feelings. My question is how to respond to an older child (7) who frequently gets sulky. Our oldest is generally a happy child but often cries easily about minor injuries or going to school. The going to school is particularly hard after an extended break like we just had (Christmas), as ever since school has been back in session he talks about being sick and not able to go. The crying from falling or other minor brushes may just be asking for more attention?

  23. Elanne Kresseer says:

    Wow! So exciting to still find new things on your blog. Even when they were written awhile ago. I had an amazing reflection from my daughter in relation to this the other day. She wanted me to pretend to cry when she told me she was going to leave for awhile. So I did and she reflected back empathy, grace and boundaries such that I almost did cry for real! She said to me, “are you feeling tender? “Yes” I said. “Do you need a hug?” She asked. “Yes” I cried back. Then she held out her arms and asked, “can I pick you up?” I held out my arms and told her yes. She pretended to pick me up and gave me a long hug. Then she looked me straight in the eye and kindly asked “would you like to walk me to the door to say goodbye?” I said yes and we walked to the door hand in hand with her pausing for a time out in our pretend to ask me where I thought the door for her to leave through should be. We chose her playroom door and she matter-of-factly hugged me and said goodbye and closed the door. I was stunned and so delighted to have her mirror back to me all things I have said to her. She let me know how much she has learned about honoring feelings and having boundaries!

  24. This post hits home with me. A little story…

    A week or so ago my 2 1/2 year old fell down and I’ll admit, I laughed. Which is out of character for me, but it was a particularly clumsy/wacky fall. I turned away to hide my reaction but it was clear what was happening. She looked confused and I felt awful. She got up and I sat on the couch. Not a minute later she, right before my eyes, recreated her fall. This time I went over to her and gave her my typical loving and supportive response. She reached up and wanted me to pick her up and cuddle her, which is not a typical response for her. It’s like she needed to recreate the scene to get the empathetic response she’s come to expect from me before she could move on. And further, she needed an even more snuggly response than she normally asks for. It was one of those interesting teachable moments- for me.

  25. She has excellent therapeutic instincts, Alaina. Great story! Thank you for sharing

  26. I wish medical professionals were taught this! I remember having an anaphylactic reaction as a young child and the ER nurse yelling at me that I was “OK” and my mom correcting her “She is NOT OK, she can’t breathe, give her medicine and then she will be able to breathe again!” And my mother telling me (not always calmly) what was happening “You’re getting a shot, it will hurt but then you will begin to be able to breathe.” And the doctors and nurses always tried to remove her from the room (we made a lot of visits to the ER in the days before food labeling) and her always refusing to leave me. I make it a point to acknowledge my children’s feelings, especially when they are sick, as I remember feeling like I was going to be OK as long as someone understood that I needed help, when I was told I was “OK” it would make me panic because I thoight I wasn’t being taken seriously.

    1. Wow, your mom is awesome!

  27. This article is brilliant, thank you. I observe my nieces and daughter when they play and/or hurt themselves/tantrum, etc. Although I was nowhere near the perfect parent with my daughter (has severe post-natal depression), after following your blog lots of things make sense to me, and I find myself cringing when my family give the young ones the brush-off. It makes me wonder if this phenomenon contributes to emotional disorders and breakdowns in the teens and adult years due to constantly having to show a happy, positive front all the time, since childhood. No one seems to be able to navigate or is comfortable with any kind of negative emotion any more, from anger, jealousy, being upset or embarrassed. Everything gets brushed off, and no one feels heard. It’s little wonder people cannot navigate conflict, obstacles in life, relationships – and now we have an explosion in bullying, marriage breakdown, and emotional disorders. We need to get back to basics, and change thing from the beginning – with the next generation!

  28. Thank you so much for this post. I’d really love to share this technique with my toddler son’s daycare providers — who are incredibly wonderful and loving, but who definitely do the brush-off while working with multiple active toddlers who have countless minor injuries and slips and falls all day long.

    Last week, I saw one child say “you’re ok!” to another after he fell, which was very sweet and coming from a good place, but is not what I’d like to see from the adults (who are clearly modeling that behavior for the kids).

    Any advice about how to go about this? I’m thinking of just printing out this post for them, but if you have any specific advice for handling this kind of thing with a group of kids, I’d love that. Thank you so much!

  29. I have always been open to allowing my son to fully express his emotions. The problem I have is that when he gets upset it rapidly escalates into throwing things, slamming doors, screaming hysterically, attacking his sister and these are behaviours that I need to respond to. If left to his own devices he can scream and bang and break things for 1.5 hours plus. I’ve tried holding him, I’ve tried sportscasting. The only thing that has ever worked is to take him out if the house, and as soon as he is outside he calms down almost immediately. So I would say allowing the emotion to flow is not a universal response appropriate to all children.

    1. My son (5-1/2) also reacts this way. He has sensory processing disorder, which is sometimes hard to, well, control. Not that I’m trying to “control” it or him, per se, but he does the Tasmanian devil thing, and trying to shield everything and everyone around him during these reactions is physically and emotionally exhausting. Fresh sure absolutely helps, though, I completely agree with that!

  30. Hi Janet!

    Thank you so much for all of your amazing books and articles! Since finding you, I feel like I finally have a roadmap on how to be the calm, gentle, respectful parent I want to be. However, I really need help with not saying, “It’s okay” to my 8 month old constantly. It’s like my knee jerk reaction and also what I was raised with. My brain just literally can’t think of any other response. The best I’ve come up with is “I hear you” or “I see you’re upset.” Is there some kind of word formula or steps you can provide for me that I could memorize? I would definitely tailor it to the situation. I think I only have the first step of “acknowledge” but obviously as you can see very limitedly. I guess I’m more of an outline or step by step learner rather than a person who learns by examples. Maybe it’s 1) acknowledge feeling, 2) describe situation, 3) restate what you the parent are going to do if it’s a discipline type situation or 3) wait for them to finish expressing their feelings if it’s a they got hurt situation? I appreciate whatever guidance you can give!!

    I’ve read your Elevating Childcare book (wonderful!) and am currently reading Your Self-Confident Baby. Thank you so much!

  31. Thank you for the post Janet, I have been listening to your podcast and read and try to apply these principles. I’m seeing the results. I have a 2 year old son and I find that when he falls or hurts himself I mirror his experience back to him – and he moves through whatever pain and emotions easily. A lot of the time it involves me saying things like, “you fell and I saw you fall, are you hurt?” He often wants to replay what happened with me. He will say things like “I fell off couch! Boom!” and I confirm “Yes I saw you fall, it looked like it hurt” It’s incredible watching him work through his emotions in front of me.

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