Parenting Practices: Validating Feelings

By: Dr. Jaime Marrus

Welcome back to the Parenting Practices blog series on Supporting Children’s Emotional Development! We hope you found last month’s tips helpful (https://drtobingpuente.com/2019/04/15/supporting-childrens-emotional-development-starts-with-accepting-their-feelings/) and have gotten a chance to take notice and practice “accepting” your child’s feelings.

This month’s focus is on validation.

All people seek validation from others in a number of ways.  We may wear an outfit that we know our partner loves in hopes of a compliment or a loving gaze. At work, we often want to ensure that the boss knows of our particular contributions to a project and enjoy receiving accolades. Children may seek validation through obtaining “good grades” and being praised for them, or telling their friends about a really cool new toy they have.  What is often missed by parents, however, is the idea of validating our children’s feelings (rather than “good” behaviors or concrete results).

For some perspective, think about a time you may have felt upset or scared and shared those feelings with someone close to you (a friend, partner, colleague, etc.), and may have received one of the following possible responses:

  • You: I’ve been having this same argument with my husband for a week… I am so upset, I don’t know what to do!
  • Response 1: Maybe you can try a different approach with him?
  • Response 2: That is frustrating. I would be upset too.
  • You: I am just so nervous about this deadline at work.
  • Response 1: Oh, don’t worry about it! I’m sure it will be fine!
  • Response 2: Yeah, deadlines are nerve-racking, that’s tough.

While there may not necessarily be anything “wrong” with Response 1 in both examples, you may have noticed that Response 2, although not providing you with any solution or reassurance, just feels better; it feels like you were being heard.  That feeling is a feeling of validation.  It’s that person communicating: “You have a right to feel that way. If it happened to me, I probably would feel the same way.”  For some of you, you may have felt like Response 1 felt INvalidating.

We want to do this same thing with our children. We want to accept their feelings and then send the message conveying, “Hey that’s ok to feel that way, I get it!”  This is important for overall emotional development and mental health.  Acknowledgement of children’s feelings is an important step in supporting them to move through the feeling in order to work towards a solution to whatever may be causing it.  Children will feel worthy and dignified in their experiences, which leads to positive outcomes such as healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy skills.

As I continued to comb through my bookshelf this month, I came across this example from Dr. Daniel Siegel’s and Mary Hartzell’s Parenting from the Inside Out:

A child comes in from playing outside and excitedly shows his mother some beetles he has collected in an open jar.  He says, “Look, Mommy, look what I found, aren’t they pretty?” All the mother sees is the possibility of bugs getting loose in the house and responds, “Get those out of here right now…”  Although at first consideration, this example does not even have to do with emotions and feelings, it is important to see how the child’s emotional experience was missed by the mother.  He likely felt quite excited and “good” about his discovery, and clearly wanted to share it with his mother.  Instead, the mother communicated a message more likely to be associated with “wrongdoing,” thus missing the meaningful emotional connection that could have given value to this experience.

So, we want to validate our children’s experiences, as well as their emotions.  In this way, we send a message of acknowledgement, acceptance, and understanding.  Validation can take many forms, including reflection, normalization, empathic responses (i.e., “I’ve had that happen to me too.”).  Below are examples of some validating parent responses:

  • Child: This homework is so hard! I hate my teacher for giving this to us.
  • Parent: Hmm, yes, it is tough to get through it tonight.
  • Child: My friend was so mean at recess today.
  • Parent: It sounds like you’re still upset about it, I’m sorry that happened.

Try to start thinking about the language you use to respond to your child when he/she is expressing an experience or a feeling.

Stay tuned for the next post in the Parenting Practices series!

Reference:

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003) Parenting From the Inside Out. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc:


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