Dealing with a sad kid is something that’s going to happen in your parenting journey—more than a few times. Here’s how to avoid making the situation even worse
No matter how hard you try to avoid it, there’s always going to be a moment when your child gets down in the dumps. Maybe they lost a beloved toy on a family trip or accidentally dropped their ice cream cone. Perhaps their favorite book or TV series got discontinued. Sometimes they’re dealing with even larger problems, like when a best friend switches schools or a family member passes away.
In our efforts to help our littles, we might offer some words that we think are helpful. But as parents and caregivers, we have to be careful of what not to say when our kids are sad. Sometimes our words can come off as harsh, while other times they can even make the situation worse. Our kids might feel like we don’t really understand or care about their pain. So how do we help them through these difficult moments? For starters, avoid saying these phrases when your kid is sad:
“Why are you being so sensitive?”
Daniel Rinaldi, a therapist with experience working with children and families, says parents should show empathy and understanding, “especially when validating sad emotions for their children.”
“The language and tone we use can help a child to feel heard, understood, and safe,” says Rinaldi. “Try instead saying, ‘I can see you’re experiencing some tricky emotions. Everyone is different and it is okay to show sensitivity. I’ll be here for you while you work through these emotions,’” he adds.
Anything that insinuates that crying is bad.
Everyone should be allowed to express their emotions, and that especially goes for children, who are still navigating emotional regulation. “(Saying “don’t cry”) tends to encourage pushing down and hiding feelings,” says Dr. Sean Akers, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Omaha.
“A better way to phrase that would be, ‘I want you to know that crying is a healthy way of expressing your emotions. I’m here to help you if you need it,’” adds Rinaldi.
“Others have it worse.”
While that may be true in some ways, reminding a child about this when they’re in distress isn’t the best time to say it. “Sadness is not a competition, and comparing experiences with others tends to make it worse,” says Dr. Akers.
If your child is frequently getting sad over “smaller” problems, having conversations (when they are no longer distressed) around gratitude, and differentiating between small, medium, and large problems so they can gain more perspective could be beneficial.
“You’re so much more difficult than _____.”
Just like sadness isn’t a competition, we also don’t want to entertain the idea that your child is more “difficult” than a sibling, friend, or other loved one just because they are struggling with their emotions.
“This phrase invalidates a child’s unique way of interacting with and understanding the world,” says Taylor Lindskoog (MHC-LP) from Empower Your Mind Therapy. “It emphasizes that they are wrong or inferior compared to their siblings (or others). This negatively impacts the child’s self-esteem and may damage their bond with siblings due to jealousy, competitiveness, or resentment,” she says.
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
Similar to the previous, Dr. Nikki Hurst, Principal Therapist and Therapeutic Content Lead at Embodied, Inc., makers of Moxie Robot, recommends avoiding this problematic phrase.
“Children’s perceptions of situations and the way they experience things are very different from adults, and a situation that may not seem like a big deal to us may be a big deal for a child. It’s important to avoid phrases such as these because we don’t want to invalidate our child’s feelings and experiences,” says Dr. Hurst. “This could cause them to be less open with us, and more unwilling to talk about their feelings or trust us with them.”
While Dr. Hurst says we don’t have to totally agree that their small problem is actually a big problem or even turn it into one, we can always use language that validates their feelings and encourages kids to talk about the issue.
“You don’t have any reason to be sad.”
“While we know many stressors and loss can make us feel sad, we also know some kids feel sad without clear reason,” says Dr. Myo Thwin Myint of Children’s Hospital New Orleans Behavioral Health. He says this can be due to everything from family history and genetics, to the interplay of mind, body, and environment. Other times it might simply be because the child hasn’t had a chance to share their reasons.
Instead of saying the above phrase, Dr. Myint offers the alternative phrase, “We all feel sad sometimes; I would love to hear if you know why you feel sad” in order to check in with the child and have an opportunity to help them with their stressors or even seek out professional help.
“Act like a big (kid)!”
“Kids are meant to be kids, and being a kid sometimes comes with big feelings and emotions,” says Dr. Hurst. And those big emotions don’t necessarily go away once they’re older, she says.
“We want to encourage children to be able to express their feelings at any age. As they get older, we want to continue to give them the tools to be able to start regulating their emotions on their own as well as the language to ask for help when they need it,” she says. Dr. Hurst recommends using language like, “It’s okay to feel sad. Do you want to talk about it?”
Anything that perpetuates toxic positivity.
Many of us have heard phrases like “turn that frown upside down!” in our lives, especially as children. And many of us also remember how annoying and dismissive it felt. While people who say this might have the best of intentions in wanting to cheer us (or their children) up, there’s no need for it.
Phrases like “Smile and think positive!” tend to be “minimizing and dismissive,” according to Dr. Akers.
Instead of saying something like “Why can’t you just cheer up and be happy?” Rinaldi recommends a phrase like “You are feeling sad and you have the right to feel that way. Take your time and I will be here when you need to talk.”
“Get over it.”
“Just as many physical symptoms may not get better with simple willpower, sadness may not be something kids can get over,” says Dr. Myint. “Changing the way we think when we feel sad may help, such as in aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy, many of us may not know how to do it well and effectively,” he says.
Instead of saying this, he suggests helping the child figure out ways they can feel less sad, enlisting professional help if and when necessary, and explaining to the child that there are people whose job it is to help kids feel less sad.