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Radical Acceptance: Teaching Children to “Just Say Okay”

Most parents, teachers, or caregivers have been in a situation where a child is unhappy and is having a difficult time accepting the reality of what just happened. The child might try to negotiate, argue, complain (“It’s not fair!”), sulk, act out or respond in any number of non-helpful ways. By behaving in a way that isn’t helpful to themselves or others, the child fails to learn positive and healthy ways to manage their emotions and solve problems.

Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) incorporates the practice of Radical Acceptance into her approach, stating that Radical Acceptance is when “you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness.” She adds, “refusing to accept reality can keep you stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger, sadness, shame, or other painful emotions.”

By radically accepting a moment, a child learns to handle stressful situations by getting past the moment. Stressful moments might include not going to the park-like anticipated because Mom has to work late (leaving a child feeling brushed off or lied to); wanting to sit next to someone in class but being unable to do so because someone else got there first (so feeling left out or sad); accidentally breaking a LEGO creation after so much time and effort went into building it (so feeling angry); completing school work but then discovering that it must be done again because the directions were misunderstood/misread (so feeling embarrassed or negatively surprised).

It makes sense that there would be a moment of feeling let down or sadness or shock. But the important thing is to recognize that the next moment can be changed. Or more to the point, that we can change the next moment. We can breathe, we can tell ourselves “I can get through this”, we can learn to move forward. With adults modeling this kind of healthy behavior, children can learn to experience unpleasant emotions, express them appropriately, and then let them go. With this practice, we can then go about getting what we want in a more controlled and thoughtful manner. We can accept what happened, say okay, and move on.

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