“Mom!” my son said, bursting through the front door, sweaty and teary-eyed. “Jackson was being mean on the bus again!” My son had been complaining for a week or so about a friend teasing him on the bus. I tried every kind of response I knew, but nothing seemed to help. When we have a sad child, our tendency is to make the sadness stop with the quickest response possible. But when we do that, we don’t even realize we’re not helping our kids process the situation in a healthy way and grow from it.
As I became more aware of this and listened to parents around me, I realized I wasn’t the only one not being helpful. I found patterns in what parents were saying. Here are the top four comments not to say when your child is sad.
1. “It’s okay.” (Minimizing the Problem)
Our kids can be upset over what seems like the smallest thing. To us, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But to them, it can be huge. When we tell them it’s okay when it’s clearly not okay to them, we minimize the problem. Your insisting that all is well will not magically make their feelings go away.
2. “Hey, you have lots of other good friends!” (Ignoring the Problem)
Sometimes, we try to change the subject by presenting the “silver lining.” But it doesn’t make the problem disappear. Putting a happy spin on a problem usually doesn’t make any of the pain go away, at least not permanently.
3. “Here’s what you need to do.” (Fixing the Problem)
As parents, we’re pretty good at problem solving, right? We’ve been there, done that. But our kids haven’t. Most people prefer learning from experience, not from hearing someone else’s advice. By telling our kids how to solve the problem, we take away this opportunity. They can’t learn from experience if we don’t let them really get experience.
4. “Well, I told you not to do that.” (Exacerbating the Problem)
Sometimes, out of our own frustration or disappointment with the situation, we enter I-told-you-so mode. We think, “If he had just listened to me, he wouldn’t have this problem.” But sharing that perspective with our children only exacerbates the problem by making them feel not only sadness but shame.
The Most Helpful Response When You’ve Got a Sad Child on Your Hands
Remember Job in the Bible? He faced extreme sadness after losing his children, servants, and animals, all at once. His friends came to see him, and the first thing they did was simply sit with him and share in his sadness. “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud… Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.” (Job 2:12-13)
Now I’m not suggesting that you sit with your children and cry together for seven days and nights. But maybe for a few minutes, just be there, acknowledging that what they’re going through is hard. Don’t fix it. Don’t brush it away.
Often, you don’t have to say anything at all. A simple hug or pat on the back is enough. Other times, you can validate a child’s feelings by saying something like, “I see that you’re very sad about that. That was hard.” Don’t underestimate the power of letting your children know they aren’t alone and that their feelings are understandable.
Don’t underestimate the power of letting your children know they aren’t alone and that their feelings are understandable.
Then, if the moment presents itself, ask questions to help them further process their sadness, like:
- What are you going to do next?
- How do you think this will turn out tomorrow?
- What would help this situation?
- What could you do differently?
Kids often already know what they need to do next. And if they don’t, they’ll ask you. “What do you think, Mom?” That’s your cue. Their ears are open to hearing some advice or, what my kids like even more, a story from when you were younger, showing that you can relate.
How do you respond to your kids when they are sad or upset?