It’s important to be understanding of how your kids feel—even when you don’t get it. As parents, we have all been in the situation where we don’t understand why our child is losing it over something that seems so minor.
The same could be said for sometimes not getting it when it comes to what our family or friends are going through. The fact is, we aren’t always going to be able to put ourselves in another’s shoes. We do, however, need to take a minute to recognize that person is feeling a certain way and is entitled to whatever that feeling is. When we do this, we are taking the time to validate them.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, validation is defined as, “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.” Marsha Linehan, a clinical psychologist and developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, adapted this even further noting that the key to validation is recognizing that another’s feelings and responses “make sense and are understandable in certain situations and that people need to take them seriously and not trivialize what those responses are.” Not only is it important to recognize how another is feeling, it’s vital that we don’t seek to change, ignore or minimize the way that person feels.
The Importance of Being Understanding
Validation is powerful in any interaction. Imagine how amazing it can be when dealing with your children. Children want their parents to recognize them and take the time to really hear them. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. Validation does not mean agreement. It just means that you’re providing space for your child to express himself without judging, criticizing or ignoring him.
Validation allows parents to demonstrate that they are in the moment with their children and that they are really listening. In their book “The Power of Validation,” Karyn Hall, and Melissa Cook assert that providing validation is one of the most important things you can do for your child. They highlight that validation is not the same as cheerleading or encouraging – an important distinction to make. For example, telling your daughter she can do great on the big test (cheerleading) is not the same as telling her that you understand why she is nervous about the big test (validation).
It’s very challenging to see a child struggling. So when parents see their children reacting emotionally, it’s natural that they often want to swoop in to help. Although this may have some merit, validation isn’t about trying to fix the problem or change the emotion. In fact, it’s allowing your child to sit in the emotion, while you sit there, too.
Let’s be clear. Emotions are always valid. Behaviors, or how we express those emotions, however, are not. Validating the feeling does not mean your child has permission to act in whatever way he wants.
Let’s say your daughter had a fight with her friend and is refusing to go to school because they’re in the same class. You can validate her frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness about her friendship issues while simultaneously problem solving with her about how she can manage in school for the day. It’s important to teach your children that feelings and behaviors, while influencing each other, are still independent of one another. Just because you feel it, does not mean you have to act it out.
Clearly, it’s important to slow down, listen, engage and validate. That may be easier said than done, though. So here are some steps you can take to ensure you provide your children with the validation they need:
- Stop and really listen to what your child is saying to you.
- Avoid interpreting, judging or offering an opinion. Just be present and engaged.
- Reflect back to your child what you hear. Restate the feeling – and what you see (your fists are clenched and you’re crying). Just noticing shows him you are paying attention.
- Replace the “but” with “and.” It’s easy to validate and then offer an opposing comment. When we use “but,” however, the validation you just provided is minimized. Using “and” in lieu of “but” can change how your feedback is received. For example, I understand that you’re upset, and you have to go to school. This small semantic change shifts the meaning of the sentence and allows your child to hear that you get it, and that you are there to help. One thought does not negate the other.
- Offer support and help, without pushing your agenda. You may be ready to jump in and solve the problem, while your child is not there yet. If you notice you’re arguing, you may be problem solving too soon. Just go back to validating.
- Keep trying. This is a new way to think and a new way to act. You’re bound to mess it up. Acknowledge that you made a mistake and keep trying.
Emotions are tricky things and are not always easy to understand. We all react differently in different situations. This is one of the things that makes us unique and interesting. It’s important to recognize this, especially when interacting with children.
How you communicate with your child prepares them for how they will communicate with you and others in their world. If we teach children that their feelings are OK, they will learn not to ignore them and will, we hope, be able to express them effectively. As children learn to experience their feelings, they learn to validate themselves, which helps build their self-esteem and confidence. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all parents want?