When “Hurt Over Nothing” Focus on the Child not the Injury

“How do I toughen him up?” asks a mom about her 5-year-old, explaining that he cries and wants a band-aid when he is clearly not hurt. The world is a tough place, and parents understandably want their children to have the skills to survive it. Parents of boys often feel this pressure most intensely. But, when a child seeks attention in this way it is really not an issue of toughness or fragility. This one is about relationship. The child is checking in, testing, confirming, simply making sure that mom and dad are here for me. His (very normal) behavior, then, can become an opportunity to confirm the strength of their bond and to help him build self-care skills—and both, incidentally, are key components of self-confidence.

How to reassure without giving attention to the “injury:”

Those times when the injury is more imagined than real, avoid belittling the child or negating his experience by saying, “You are not hurt.” Instead, don’t focus on the injury. Focus on what your child is checking for: Is mom/dad seeing me? In whatever way is natural for you, reaffirm for your child your care and attention. One way to do this is to go ahead and name his need and confirm your relationship. Examples (tone is reassuring and without blame):

  • “Did you think I did not know you were in this room with me?”
  • “Did you need an “ow” to show me you are here?”
  • “What a funny thing to forget that momma knows you are here.”

This direct style may not be the right fit for every parent, but there are many ways to give your child the reaffirmation he needs. Simple positive engagement usually does the trick. The important thing is to offer your attention and reassurance of your protective presence without giving attention to the imagined injury. It can be helpful to remember that:

  • As their world gets bigger and scarier children will periodically need extra reassurance.
  • Children who feel safe and cared for by their parents are more likely to feel secure and confident as adults.

How to Introduce Self-Care strategies:

Minor bumps and bruises offer the opportunity for children to learn and practice how to care for themselves. Even when the hurt is more imagined than real, you can support him by teaching self-care strategies. Examples:

  • “Can you blow on it yourself?”
  • “Does it need a bandaid? How bout you pick the color that will make it better?”
  • “Would your ice pack help? Remember where it is in the fridge?”

It can be helpful to remember that: Teaching self-care skills without the goal of “toughening” and without negating or minimizing the child’s expressed hurt (ex: “You are not hurt!”) encourages self-confidence.