Your son bumps his elbow and starts crying. Your daughter trips on the grass and is writhing and screaming.

What is happening when our children have a wide gap between the extent of an injury and the expression of pain?

For our kids (and also for us adults!), trips, bumps and scrapes are SURPRISES. Injuries are BETRAYALS of an expectation that a child can move about in the world and stay safe.

Let’s think of a parallel in ourselves to have a better understanding of what’s happening here. Let’s say you and a friend are walking on the street and, out of nowhere, and a stranger pushes you and walks by. You maintain your footing but feel (understandably!) totally shaken.

I’ll use myself as an example here. Let’s say I turn to my friend and say, “Ouch my arm! It really hurts!” We all can see that I’m expressing arm pain to represent something more complex: “Someone just pushed me. That was unexpected and isn’t supposed to happen. Now I feel off-kilter and less safe in the world.”
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Our kids cannot verbalize this more reflective response (often us adults can’t either!) – So they focus on the physical pain. It’s more concrete, less vulnerable, easier to describe.

If I did say, “Ouch my arm!” to my friend and she replied, “Becky, COME ON! You’re FINE!” … I’d feel un-seen and annoyed. Yes, my words only described a physical injury but what I really need is my friend to see and validate my deeper experience.

If my friend cannot see the more egregious injury – not the arm pain but the pain of “That wasn’t supposed to happen” – I’d likely escalate to “It reallllllly hurts!,” desperate for her to see the complexity of my distress.

Let’s say my friend didn’t take the bait of my specific words and instead replied, “That person pushed you. You didn’t expect or want that to happen. I believe you that it hurts.” Well, now I’d feel seen, understood, and REAL. My body would start to calm down.

These words are magical: “You bumped into the chair. You didn’t expect or want that to happen. I believe you that it hurts.” To effectively deliver this type of message, speak slowly and warmly to your child. And come back here and tell me how it goes!