Validation. What is it and why is it important?
Validation is the way we humans communicate acceptance of not only ourselves but others as well. Validation does not mean that we agree or approve of another’s behaviors, it just means that we are being supportive and working to strengthen and find connection in our relationships.
Validation attends to the relationship even when we don’t agree with the other person.
When we validate a child, we are recognizing and accepting their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We are letting children know that we understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. So, when our child or teen is angry, sad, stressed, or making poor choices, we validate them by letting them know that we accept that they are having these thoughts and feelings even when we do not approve of the behaviors or choices.
So, why is validation important when it comes to children and teens? Think back to your own childhood. When you had a meltdown, what happened? Did you get sent to your room? Were you told to stop it or calm down? Were you asked, “What’s your problem?’, “What do you have to be angry about?”, or “What’s wrong with you?”. How did these statements make you feel? What I have found when working with children and teens is that they have learned to repress their emotions. They have learned that it is not safe to express feelings. So, what happens? Children and teens learn to express their emotions through negative behaviors such as defiance, tantrums, and self-injury. The message received was that expressing emotions was forbidden. Now we have a problem.
So, what can be done? Can anything be done? Yes. Parents can learn to validate their children’s thoughts and feelings. When children and teens feel that their parents understand how they are feeling, communication improves, and children and teens are more willing to trust their parents to come and share their emotional experiences. Validation is a good thing. Parents, if you want to see your children and teens learn to regulate their emotions, begin with validation. Show them that you understand their emotions and can understand why they made the choices that they made. Then you can have a conversation about making better choices.
Next question is, how do you validate?
I use a therapeutic intervention called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) which helps individuals learn skills to regulate emotions, tolerate distress, be mindful, and improve interpersonal relationships. DBT was developed by Marsha Linehan for individuals diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. There are six levels of validation.
Level one: Be present. Being present means exactly what you think. Listening to your child without distraction. Sitting with your teen who has been disappointed by friends and just listening. Being present means giving your undivided attention. So, put the phone down, focus on your child, do not judge, and just listen. Learn to be comfortable in sitting with intense emotions. Don’t run away, don’t avoid it, and don’t push your child away due to your own discomfort. When you can sit with intense emotions, you model for your child or teen how to do it as well.
Level two: Accurate reflection: This means that you summarize what you have heard your child or teen say. Be authentic. Don’t judge or criticize. Your intent should be to truly understand what your child or teen is experiencing. “It sounds like your friend really let you down.” “I hear that you are saying that you are angry at me for taking your phone away.”
Level three: Mindreading: This means guessing what your child is thinking or feeling. Kids can often confuse or be unable to identify exactly what they are feeling. They can confuse anger with being frustrated, anger with disappointment, happiness with excitement, or anxiety with excitement. They may not know what the are feeing because they have become fearful of sharing their emotions. Many times, children have learned to hide their feelings because others have reacted negatively to them when they displayed their emotions. For kids to regulate their emotions, they need to learn to label their feelings. Observe the emotional state your child is in and name the emotion. “I’m guessing that you were feeling pretty disappointed when your friend didn’t want to sit with you at lunch”. You may be wrong, and your child will correct you. Accepting the correction is validating as well.
Level four: Understand the behavior based on their history and biology: Our biology and history influence our behaviors. This is especially true for children and teens who have experienced big or traumatic expereinces. A child who was abused may not trust adults. A teen who was sexually assaulted may be uncomfortable around male figures. “Knowing what happened to you, I can understand why you don’t want to be around men.”
Level five: Normalizing the emotions: Helping your child to understand that what they are feeling is normal will help your child accept their emotions. If your teen is sensitive to emotions, acknowledging that anyone would feel the same in that situation is quite validating. “Of course, you’re angry, your friend betrayed your trust.”
Level six: Radical genuineness: This means that you can understand your child’s or teen’s emotions at a far deeper level. You may understand exactly how your child feels because you have felt that way too. You can connect with your child by sharing that you had similar experiences.
It is not always easy to put these levels of validation into practice. However, when you can do so, your child will be heard. When you are considering which level of validation to use, you want to make sure that you use the highest level of validation that fits the situation.
Remember that when you ignore, deny, or judge your child or teen’s thoughts and feelings, you are being emotionally invalidating. This is hurtful for those who are highly sensitive with their emotions. This causes a disconnect in the relationship. Invalidation makes it more difficult to treat children and teens with anxiety and depression. Here are a few don’ts when it comes to validation:
Don’t assume you know how your child feels. Ask!
Don’t assume that validation means agreement. Validation is not agreeing.
Don’t try and fix the problem. Most times your child or teen just wants you to sit with them as they feel their emotions. They don’t want or need you to fix anything.
If you can change how you react to your child or teen’s emotions, you will teach them how to express their emotions appropriately. You will reduce the negative interactions and conflicts that can occur when your child expresses emotions inappropriate ways.