“’It’s Okay to Not Be Okay:’ What Emotionally Struggling Students Need to Hear”

Growing up, I was a normal, active kid who loved school and participated in many sports and activities. I loved school and it came easily to me! When I was 15, my life changed when I had an accident while horseback riding. I have absolutely no recollection of the event itself, but I know that I landed on my head.

After about 45 minutes of unconsciousness, followed by another 5 hours where I was unable to recollect anything – I had no short- or long-term memory – I “woke up” in the hospital. By “woke up” I mean I was able to retain enough information to have a conversation that lasted longer than 5 minutes.

After a few days in the hospital, where I answered the same questions over and over (What is your name? What year is it? Who is the president?) I was sent on my way. But during my time in care and even afterward, I kept hearing variations of “You’re fine” and “You’re okay,” which troubled me, because I didn’t feel fine or okay. I struggled to recall anything before the accident. And I don’t just mean the hours or day before, but my whole life prior to the event. When I shared these concerns, my doctor assured me that it’s normal not to remember “the days” before the concussion, and that my memory should come back in a couple of weeks, “but you may not get it all back. You’ll be fine!”

After the incident, I was referred to an optometrist to help clear up my double- and triple-vision. Today, this would have been an obvious sign that something was wrong with my brain, not my eyes. But we didn’t know back then what we know now.

Worse than the memory loss, though, was my loss of impulse and emotional control. It felt like there was someone inside of me controlling – and ruining – everything. Still, I was told “You’re okay” and “It’s fine!” so many times that I stopped questioning what was happening to me, even though I didn’t feel like myself. I spent the rest of my high school years quietly struggling. I forgot how to learn and had no control over my emotions or behaviors – yet I was soon off to college.

[Read: 11 Strategies That Improve Emotional Control at School and Home]

I had not talked to anyone about what I was going through because I was told that I was fine – end of discussion. But once in college, I talked about my experiences with my new best friend. He was the first one to tell me, “Dude, you are not okay.” He told my roommate, who was a neuropsychology major, who then brought me to her psychology professor, who then put me in touch with his friend, a neurologist. He confirmed that my “concussion” was in fact a traumatic brain injury and that I had not received any of the post-injury care that I needed.

I was in denial at first. But being told that I was “not okay” did something to me: It gave me the confidence to finally advocate for myself. Eventually, I began to see a counselor who helped me deal with the shame and self-hatred I had developed due to everything that had happened. She helped me realize that it’s okay to not be okay, and she encouraged me to focus on moving forward and building myself into someone whom I can love and respect.

Today, I’m a teacher and learning specialist for twice-exceptional students — those with brilliant minds who also have conditions that impact learning, emotions, and behavior.

Why do I share this deeply personal story? Because, as a teacher, I think it is a great example of the damage we can do when we tell students who are struggling with big emotions or otherwise that they are “fine” or “okay” when we know – and they know — that they are neither.

[Read: “Did Something Happen at School Today?”]

I know that we mean well, but these words often have the unintended effect of negating a child’s feelings, as was the case for me after my injury. If we continuously tell students that they are okay when they are not, we cause them to question themselves and refrain from seeking help and advocating for themselves.

So how should we respond when a student isn’t doing okay?

What Emotionally Struggling Students Need

1. Acknowledge their feelings. Even when you concretely know that your student is not in danger, real pain, or emotional turmoil, it’s important to validate how they’re feeling. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with them or even believe that their response is appropriate to the situation. On that note…

2. Remember that feelings are complicated. All young students are not always the best at recognizing their emotions, but it is particularly difficult for neurodivergent students. They may struggle to identify what triggered their emotions, which often makes for implausible explanations that seem attention-seeking. Your student might fear, for example, that they are being chased by a giant worm. Instead of dismissing them, recognize that your student may be struggling to identify and verbalize what’s really going on. Honor this emotion of fear anyway by saying, “That seems really scary” or “That sounds terrifying!”

3. Provide options for calming down. We can’t start to problem-solve in a state of emotional dysregulation. That said – and this should go without saying – do not tell your students to calm down. If they could, they would. Instead, offer them tools and strategies to help them reclaim emotional control.

I have a student who (virtually) storms into my classroom at least once a week. I let him express his feelings, acknowledge that I can see his frustration, and say something like, “I would really like to discuss this with you, but first, can we take a second to remember where we are?” With that, I ask the student to tell me five things he sees, four things he feels, three things he hears, two things he knows he can do, and one thing he is going to do. At this point (and usually after a lot of eye-rolling) we are able to move on to problem-solving.

4. Help students name feelings and look past the surface to identify the real problem. By building their emotional vocabulary, you’re helping students pinpoint how they’re feeling – anything from frustrated and bored to worried and irritable – which will allow them to take control and figure out what’s behind their feelings.

Once your student identifies what caused their feelings, give them options for problem-solving (and how you can play a role), like “mediate conversation between students” (assuming there’s some conflict here), “discuss methods for managing emotions” (e.g., what to do when challenging class material causes frustration), and “talk with parents about student needs” among other choices. Nine times out of ten, students simply want to be heard and have their problems recognized. Giving your students options to identify the type of help they want and need will empower them to seek out appropriate resources the next time a similar situation arises.

As I learned after years of suffering silently, it’s okay to not be okay. This mentality doesn’t mean that we’re encouraging students to accept defeat. In fact, it’s the opposite. When we can admit that we’re struggling – a little or a lot – it puts us on a path toward finding help to make things better. The next time a student isn’t doing okay, acknowledge it. Believe them so they won’t question themselves as they open the door to resiliency and self-advocacy. If we do not provide a truly supportive and safe space for them to express their emotions, we actively hurt their resilience and self-advocacy.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Next Steps for Emotional Control

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