How to Use Validation to Enhance Your Child’s Mental Health (and Their Relationship with You!)
October 07, 2019
By Amy Bednarski, Infinite Healing and Wellness
Have you ever felt a lack of connection with your child or teenager? Have you ever felt frustrated because they won’t communicate with you? Many parents would say an emphatic “YES!” Expressing feelings doesn’t come naturally to children, or even to some parents for that matter!
We are all hardwired to experience emotions. Emotions serve as a primal mechanism to keep ourselves safe (e.g. fight/flight response). When we suppress emotions, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which in excess levels can lead to a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, blood sugar fluctuations, and impaired cognitive functioning, thus resulting in higher prevalence of physical and mental health disorders. Helping our children to express their emotions is an important aspect of their well-being. So how can we help as their parents?
We can use a technique called validation. Have you ever felt as if your feelings were not important to someone, not understood, or not ok to have? You likely felt invalidated. Validation is the act of providing recognition or affirmation of a person’s feelings or opinions, and giving the message that their feelings are valid and worthwhile. Sometimes when our children come to us with a problem, our natural response is to say, “Don’t be mad,” “Just be positive,” “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “Don’t cry.” Sound familiar? We all have done it, because we love our children and don’t want to see them in pain. What we don’t realize, is that these comments unknowingly can send the message that they shouldn’t feel or express these emotions, or that their feelings are irrational. This can lead to children suppressing their emotions, not trusting their internal experience, or expressing their emotions in unhealthy ways in a frantic attempt to release and communicate their struggles.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT), identified six levels of validation:
- Be present. When your child is talking to you, make eye contact and be fully attentive to your child. If we are multi-tasking on our phone, we may miss out on what they are communicating or miss out on telling body language. This gives our children the message that what they are telling us is important…that THEY are important.
- Accurate reflection. Reflection is communicating what we heard them say. This is not “parroting” back what they said, but instead demonstrating that you truly heard what they were trying to express. “It sounds like you’re pretty hurt and angry,” or “You are feeling really anxious about your performance tomorrow.” Your child will feel heard and reassured.
- Mind Reading. No, we do not possess this super-power! Yet, sometimes if our child is not able to identify or express how they are feeling, we can guess how they might be feeling based on the situation or their body language, which can help them label their feelings. This requires for us to be attuned to their emotional and physical cues. “I’m guessing that you’re sad you were not invited to the party.” If your child corrects you, accepting this correction is validation.
- Understanding behavior based on history and biology. Our responses are based on our biological predisposition and past experiences. If your child had a near-drowning experience as a toddler, this traumatic memory, imprinted into their amygdala—the emotional side of the brain—could send the child into fight-or-flight mode in response to any reminders of this event. Using this level of advanced validation may sound like: “Given what happened to you, I can understand why you feel hesitant and scared to go to the water park.” If your teenager has been betrayed often: “I can see why it’s hard for you to trust others and why you feel so angry.”
- Normalizing emotions that anyone would have. For children learning about emotions, it is comforting to know that their emotions are normal. For a sensitive teenager, it is reassuring to know that anyone would feel the same emotion if they were going through a similar situation. Using this level of validation can reduce shame. Feeling shame leads to hiding emotions or developing negative beliefs about oneself. “Of course you are nervous about starting high school…that can be a scary time for anyone.” Avoid following with a statement such as “We all get through it just fine,” as this can reverse the effect of the validation. Further explore their fears, and tell them you will support them through it.
- Radical genuineness. Radical genuineness is showing that you are a person with emotions too! Being able to temporarily let go of the need to be the parental authority figure (and telling your child what to do), shows that you can just be present with your child through their emotions. Holding space for their emotions sends the message to your child that emotions are ok and not something to avoid.
Be patient with yourself in your attempts to put this into action. Using validation takes practice! This practice can lead to the ultimate payoff—a confident and well-adjusted child, increased awareness of your child’s inner experience, and a more connected parent-child relationship.
Amy Bednarski is a Licensed Professional Counselor and EMDR Therapist. Amy has extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and families, and can help you and your loved ones to recover from trauma. Amy is currently accepting both child and adult clients at the Phoenix location of Infinite Healing and Wellness, LLC. Please contact 480-448-1076 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
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