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I have an amazing almost 14 month old son. He's curious and is starting to get into trouble that occasionally causes him to fall or bump his head. I think that part of the time he's actually hurting but much of the time he's reacting to the surprise of the fall, not any actual pain.

I'm (possibly overly) concerned about how to ride that line between coddling him and telling him to "suck it up". I don't want him to overreact to pain stimuli that go away quickly but I also don't want him to feel like he can't come to me when he's hurting and start to internalize his problems.

I'm hesitant to say things like "You're just fine" or "you're OK" because I can't feel his pain - I don't actually know whether he's hurting that much or not, I'm only able to base my response on what I see happen.

How can I respond to him in a way that doesn't invalidate his pain response but that also encourages him to be a bit more "gritty" in dealing with his pain. I love snuggling him and would do it all day if he'd let me - which he won't - so maybe I'm overly concerned but I think we (Americans) have done a bit of a disservice to our sons, teaching them to internalize their pains (physical and emotional) but I also don't want to swing too far the other way!

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At that age, there is very little exaggeration or falsification of feelings, so comfort him every time he has a negative emotion. These early month are when he learns security. He needs this.

If you don't want to invalidate his feelings (which I respect completely), tell him what will happen in the future:

I'm sorry you got hurt. It hurts now, but you know what? It will be OK in a few minutes. Let's see, OK?

Now is the time to be expanding his vocabulary with feeling words (in other words, give him an emotional vocabulary.)

Questions like, Was that a surprise? Did that scare you? Are you afraid to try that again? Do you need a hug/bandaid/other? An emotional vocabulary is essential, but so often overlooked. The first step to dealing with an emotion is learning to name it. Adults often get angry because they feel worthless, powerless, hopeless, invalidated, disrespected, unloved, you name it, but they can't, because dealing with primary emotions like worthlessness / being unvalued is incredibly painful, so it becomes anger, which is easier to express and gives a false sense of control.

You're right that males are not "allowed" to feel things as much as females. Break the cycle by giving him an emotional vocabulary and be willing to discuss his emotions as a natural part of living in community with others.

  • 1
    When you say "if you don't want to invalidate his feelings" - is this an unnecessary limitation I'm setting? You say you respect it - does that mean you share this methodology choice it or that you're not questioning it? I'm guessing yes because of the rest of your answer but I wanted to be certain. – Kaba Kun Oct 20 '17 at 22:59
  • You are fine validating his feelings. He has them; invalidating them will only cause him confusion. – anongoodnurse Oct 21 '17 at 2:11
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Acknowledge something happened.

Wow! That was quite the fall!

Do a quick evaluation of actual harm.

This can be as simple as a glance--any blood? Any broken bones?

Suggest an alternative activity if necessary.

We should move, we don't want to fall like that again! I know I wouldn't like [insert brief description of how child seems to be feeling] if it happened to me. Let's go play with [insert equally tempting object here].

Allow Story Telling Post-Event

If the child wants, allow them to retell what happened and ask them for more details. Gently correct them if the story goes off the rails.

A HUGE TRICERATOPS BIT ME AND I FELL!

This can be particularly helpful if the event was traumatic, as it allows them to process A: what happened, B: what happened to them, and C: what to do next time.

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    That would be a pretty impressive speech from a 14 month old. I like to assist them doing what they attempted: "Grab here, then step on the block. Hold my hand for this part. Stay low." or whatever since I suspect frustration as a major source of distress at that age. – user26011 Oct 20 '17 at 17:36
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    The first sentence is perfect. Little kids sometimes look to you for cues as to how they should respond; if you look or exclaim very anxious or concerned, they will see it's something to be upset about and will get upset. If you're calm about it they're often fine. – Wildcard Oct 21 '17 at 10:26
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Distraction works really well in cases like this.

I remember one time I was visiting a friend, and their little kid, a bit older than the one here but not too much, accidentally touched an exposed electrical wire. Cue much screaming and crying and panicking, even though he wasn't actually hurt in any real way; most of it was just the shock of the world doing something completely unexpected and painful.

After a few moments of the parents having no idea what to do, I went over and told him I'd show him something. I had him give me his hand, and I did the "pull a string out of your palm" trick, which gave him a different (and much less unpleasant) weird sensation to focus on. Suddenly all his pain and fear was forgotten just as quickly as it had come.

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IMO the Cry doesn't have to be pain related. As you said, it can be surprise related or fear related. A fall and bump his head, may or may not be painful, but I dare you to fall head first into the floor from a standing height and see if your not at least a little shook up.

So the problem, as I see it, isn't "OW! that hurt so much I need to cry about it!" As it is, "Something is wrong, and I don't know how to express it so I am going to cry!"

I usually handle this in three steps.

  1. Check for real damage, quickly. This needs to be fast and hidden. You don't really want them to see you do it. But if there is no big damage (you have to make the call where that starts), then move on.

  2. Give them an example of how you think they should react. For example, they are going to be talking a lot so "Whoooaaa, you fell down." Be matter of fact about it, and don't spend time on it. Just make a statement, something close to what you want them to say next time, and move on back to what ever you were doing.

  3. Teach any lessons as needed. "See, that's why we don't climb the chairs, cause you can fall down." Again this should seem like a "second hand" comment. Your already back to mixing the noodles, and you say it over your shoulder.

Because you reacted, and you acted like it wasn't a big deal, they won't think it's a big deal. You may want to distract them ("Hey go get your puppy") and in some cases. If they are older you may need to let them know crying isn't the correct response, and there are better ways to express their feelings. But if you act like it's no big deal, then they will pick up on that very quickly.

As for ignoring real damage. Don't worry about it. You won't. Kids are like RubberMaid. They will bounce back. If you miss a real boo boo, then just handle it. After a few time you will be able to tell "real" pain and fear, from the minor stuff just by the sound of their cry.

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I would suggest the best way to go is asses the situation. If there is a wound that is a scratch or bleeding due to a fall, comfort your son. It’s also important to how you react when he falls, like facial expressions and sounds like wincing for example. Kids even young will catch on very quick. If he falls, gets up on his own, cries a bit but settles rather quickly it may not be that serious. It’s okay to physically touch him like helping him get on his feet. It reassure him that you are there and you can check on him without letting on to him that you are checking on him. Sometimes kids can also look for a reaction (testing out boundaries). In this case it’s important to respond rather then react.

In the case that he is physically hurt, hug him or let him show you the boo boo (depending on if he likes to be hugged a lot or not). Tell him that he will be okay and that it’s something you can take care off (like basic first aide) you will. Just reassurance really.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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