Validation is a term we hear more and more these days, and I couldn’t be happier about it. While the concept may have originated elsewhere, I first became aware of it through the work of Marsha Linehan, a clinical psychologist and creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In my work with couples and families, validation is something that comes up in almost every session. So let’s talk about what it means, why it’s important, and how we can use it to build better relationships!
What Does Validation Mean?
When we validate someone else, we are recognizing or affirming that their feelings, opinions or perceptions are valid and worthwhile. When we validate the feelings of others, we put ourselves in their shoes to understand their emotional experience and accept it as real.
This is sometimes where people get stuck thinking “Can I still validate someone if I don’t agree with what they’re saying?” YES! Validating your child’s feelings does not mean you condone or agree with the actions your child takes. It simply lets your child know that you understand their feelings and that it’s ok to have those feelings. Regardless of what the child is conveying, the one thing that is always true is the way they feel. In order to validate someone, look for the underlying emotion. By validating the emotional experience of your child, you can help them learn how to handle the big emotions that often lead to tantrums, meltdowns, and conflict within the family.
Why Is Validation Important?
We’ve all probably been in a situation where we expressed feeling hurt or upset about something, only to have someone tell us that we’re overreacting, being dramatic, or need to calm down. Can you recall how that situation made you feel? More than likely, it probably provoked anger, frustration or insecurity, rather than helping you feel calm and safe. According to authors Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D, and Melissa H. Cook, LPC, in their book “The Power of Validation”, validation helps de-escalate emotionally-charged situations, while allowing the other person to feel heard and understood. When we are validated, we experience a reduction in the intensity of our emotions. We are then better able to decide what to do next, rather than letting the emotion drive the behavioral response.
For children, validation teaches them to identify their own emotions and to label them. When children can say, “I’m feeling angry” or “I’m so frustrated,” it means they can communicate their experience with words and won’t need to demonstrate it physically with aggression or violence. When children’s emotions are expressed verbally, the adults around them are able to remain calm and offer help.
Even though we have the best of intentions, we can sometimes be invalidating toward our children and our partners. By invalidating the other person, we are sending a message that their emotional experience is rejected, judged or ignored. Unfortunately, we are often most invalidating when we are trying to help! When someone we love is suffering or struggling, all we want to do is find a way to make it stop. This can force us into problem solving mode, or make us want to push the difficult feelings away because it’s hard to see them in distress. This can send the message that the person’s emotions are too big for us to handle, or that we don’t have confidence that they will be able to find solutions on their own. Validation isn’t about fixing problems for our loved ones or trying to change their emotional experience; it’s about allowing the other person to sit with their emotion and acknowledge it. Not offering solutions doesn’t mean abandoning them. Sit with them in their experience of sadness or disappointment and let them know that their feelings make sense.
Many of the things that children get upset about may seem trivial to adults or the emotions can seem disproportionate to the situation. It can be hard for an adult to put themselves in a child’s shoes at times. We might tell them things like “just calm down”, “it’s fine, don’t get upset”, “you’re acting like a baby” or “you have no reason to be angry”. This can make a child feel overwhelmed and confused as they’re trying to make sense of their big feelings. When a child is told that their internal emotional experience is wrong over and over, it makes them feel more out of control and less trusting of their own internal experience. It can also damage the relationship between a child and parent.
Even though it takes a little longer and it can be uncomfortable, it’s important to help children label and understand their feelings, while giving space for that sadness and anger. Instead of saying “you don’t need to get angry, it was Johnny’s turn anyway” you might say “I understand that you’re disappointed about having to give someone else a turn. It’s hard not being able to play for as long as you might have liked.” In this instance we’re not giving the child any extra time, or explaining all the reasons why he needs to share. We’re simply acknowledging that he’s disappointed, and that he wishes things could have been different, while giving space for him to be sad, angry and disappointed. If the child were to start misbehaving by throwing things or shouting, we can focus on correcting the behavior, but the emotions remain valid.
How to use Validation
Validating the emotions of your child is not always easy. Often a child’s distress brings on distress for the parent too, and it can be hard to react calmly in the moment. Parents can try to validate their child anytime there is a strong emotional reaction to a situation. Being present with your child shows them that you support them and their emotions aren’t too big for you to handle. Sitting calmly with your child lets them know that you are there and ready to help when they are ready to move on. It also models emotion regulation during difficult situations.
Normalizing your child’s feelings is another way to validate them. It can be helpful for children to know they’re not alone and that others would feel the same way. Saying something like, “It’s okay to feel anxious about your first dance class – starting something new can feel scary when we don’t know what to expect.” Just be sure not to immediately jump in with reassurance or solutions at this point.
Another way to validate your children is to reflect their feelings back to them. For example: “It sounds like you were frustrated when your sister took apart your Lego. I know you worked really hard on that.” When children are less able to express their thoughts or feelings, it’s ok for parents to try to guess what they might be feeling. You might say, “You look like you’re pretty disappointed.” It’s also okay to be wrong. It still shows that you are there and trying to understand.
The most important thing about helping your children through difficult emotional situations is to remember to lead by example. Your children will pick up on your behavior much faster than your words. Demonstrate how you regulate your own emotions during a challenging situation, and verbalize for them how you might be feeling. “I’m feeling frustrated right now, so I’m going to take a break and go take some deep breaths”. We all have bad days and we aren’t perfect. Learning to validate is like learning a new language. Keep practicing and it will get easier!
Karyn D. Hall and Melissa Cook – The Power of Validation: Arming Your Child Against Bullying, Peer Pressure, Addiction, Self-Harm, and Out-of-Control Emotions (2012)
Marsha Linehan – Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (1993)