I will be the first to admit that I have said “you’re ok” in the past. The most notable time was immediately after my son was born. I held him in my arms and said to him a few times “you’re ok” as he screamed his little pink face off. However, since then I have learnt that this is not the best thing to say to someone, especially a child. While it may seem meaningless and you’re probably wondering either what the hell is she talking about or she doesn’t know what she is talking about? Well I’m about the get into the reason why saying “you’re ok” may not be the best choice of words.
First of all let’s use our imagination or our memory to play a little game. Is there a time in your life either as a child or adult when you were upset, angry, distraught and someone came up to you and said “you’re ok.” They're tone of voice indicated that you're ok and you need to stop crying and get over it. If you can’t think of a memory, just use your imagination to pretend that you feel upset and someone is telling you that you are ok. How does it make you feel? (I’ll give you a moment to get a pen and paper if you wish).
What feelings and thoughts did you write down? Did it perhaps make you feel confused because clearly you are upset and not ok? Did it make you feel mistrustful of your own feelings because even though you know you’re upset someone is telling you that you are not upset? Did it make you second-guess yourself?
These are all normal feelings when someone tells us that we are ok, whether on the surface or deep down, we know that we are in fact not ok (in that moment anyway). We can feel distrustful of our own emotions and responses, confused and it could even add to our feelings of distress as we are not having our need met. What is our need in this moment? More often than not our need to is be listened to, to be empathized with, for the other person to say “I see you’re upset and I want you to know I am here for you and I am listening.”
Now imagine you are a child. You are new to the world, you are still figuring things out. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, angry and sad. An adult comes over to you in your moment of distress and says to you “you’re ok.” Now let me tell you the reason why this is not an ok thing to say. When we express our feelings, and especially when children express their feelings they are raw and authentic. They are a way of us conveying our inner truth and releasing the inner turmoil that we are currently experiencing. When a child is crying or having a tantrum, it is a completely normal and natural response to the emotions they are feeling. As suggested by psychological research (Aletha Solter Ph.D) this forms healthy neural pathways and hormone responses within the body that allows the child’s state of equilibrium to come back into balance. If we tell a child “you’re ok” (in a tone that is really telling them to be quiet) while they are releasing their emotions it overrides the construction of these healthy neural pathways. They instead start to second guess what they are really feeling, they learn to detach themselves from what they are feeling, they place trust in other people’s opinions instead of in their own emotions, they become confused and at the extreme this simple phrase can damage their emotional development. In short it is disrespectful to the distressed individual and you are doing them a disservice.
If you are currently saying this to yourself, your children or your friends, fear not you can easily change this habit. It is never too late to change any aspect of yourself. As I mentioned above I used to say “you’re ok” until I learnt of a more empathetic phrase, which I personally feel more comfortable saying. It is this simple:
“I’m here.” OR “You’re safe.”
When you tell a child or someone else that you are here, it is not overriding their personal emotional response. They feel understood, respected and it let’s them know that you are here for them and with them. It also has a lovely side effect; it connects you on a deeper level with the person/child in distress. You can also add other responses such as “I’m listening” and “You’re safe.” Particularly if said to your child during emotional distress and crying it allows your child to develop those important neural pathways, develops trust in themselves, and also trust in you that you know how to respond in their best interest and it forms a strong connection between you and the child.
If the word "okay" resonates with you personally, maybe you can word it as a question to your child. Asking them "are you okay?" Listen to their response and follow their cues. Your tone of voice and intention behind the words you use is also very important.