In a previous post I spoke about empathy, and how we can use it to help our children comply with our requests at home. Empathy is important to help children feel understood, and validation helps them recognize their feelings are normal. It’s the next step to building an emotionally intelligent child/teen. Validation is often viewed as interchangeable with empathy with parents, so I want to break it down here.
Why do we need validation?
Validation is especially helpful when children are worried. A common theme among the children and teens I work with is that they’ve developed a pattern of hiding their worries from their parents. Typically, this occurs even when parents acknowledge their feelings, because they then work hard to make it better for their kids by offering solutions to the problem, or telling them not to worry.
This is something we are hardwired to do. Our evolutionary brains are built to take away our child’s booboos. When they are infants, they cry, we pick them up, and do everything we can make them stop, right?
Well, this works great for the first year, maybe two. After that, children interpret a subtle message from our attempts to make it all better. They start to think that it’s not ok to feel worried or sad or other negative feelings. So they mention them less, and the effects of their worries leak out in their behavior with whining, complaining, meltdowns, and tantrums, no matter the age.
What is validation?
Validation is the act of letting your child know their feelings are ok, common, expected, and that’s it. No need for a solution, or to make them happy again.
But Megghan, it hurts my heart to see them upset! Yes, it absolutely does. Emotionally expressive and resilient children need the space to feel their feelings without worrying about whether their parents think they should have those feelings, or if it will get them in trouble, or if they will be dismissed for worrying about a ‘small’ thing.
Easier said than done! Like I said earlier, it’s an automatic response for us to say “don’t worry” or “it won’t hurt” or “you’ll be fine.” It was necessary for early humans to make quick decisions about danger. This often meant deciding for their children what they should/should not do in an uncertain situation. Now that we live in a society where we aren’t being chased by animal predators, we can let our children be in their feelings without needing to whisk them away immediately.
How can I validate my child/teen?
To send this message we can say “you’re really worried about that” (empathy). Then, “It makes sense that you’re wondering what might happen when…” (validation). Or “It’s tough to feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen next” (empathy) and “lots of kids feel worried when they try a new experience” (validation).
Pause and let your child talk about the worry, or draw a picture about how big it is, or for teens, pick a song whose lyrics fit what they’re feeling. Keep the focus on them, as teens especially often feel misunderstood when we offer an example that shows we can relate.
You can offer at the end of your conversation to help them work through a solution, or ask what they think they want to do about it. When we make space for our kids to feel their feelings, and know they are ok to have, we make space for them to find their own solutions to these problems in their own time.
Stay tuned for more on validation and helping worried kids and teens. Want more tips on specific issues? Let me know in the comments!