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Even those amongst us who should know better (I speak for myself here as a Clinical Psychologist who has worked with young people for many years!), don’t always parent according to best practice parenting research. How can someone who knows what to do, not do it? Well… we are all human, the product of our environment and to add to that young children can be trying on the patience of even the most patient. However, despite this we should be constantly striving to be the best parent (godparent, friend, aunt, uncle or grandparent) we can be in any given moment.
Emotional validation involves several steps. Start with being wholly present and listen, hearing the emotion that a child is sharing. Then respond to the child to let them know you have heard and understand their emotional response. Whilst validating is extremely important and beneficial, on the flip side, repeatedly providing a child with an ‘invalidating response’ can be damaging.
Being emotionally invalidating is so easy to do.
‘Mummy I’m scared, I don’t want to do it.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ comes the reply, ‘That’s not scary.’
Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine what it would feel like if your emotional response to something was dismissed. Imagine this…
You have an argument with a friend because your friend shared something very personal about you, which you asked them not to repeat. You come home still bubbling with anger and tell your partner how angry you feel, betrayed. To which your partner replies still looking down at their phone, ‘Don’t be so dramatic! You’re over-reacting. That’s not a big deal – you just need to get over it and move on.’
In comparison to…
Your partner puts down their phone, looks at you and says, ‘Wow! I am not surprised you’re angry, I would be angry too. That’s really disappointing, I wonder why they would do that?’
These contrasting responses create quite different experiences. In the second example, we feel more connected to our partner, listened to, and heard.
When we validate our child’s emotional response, we are making an important contribution in supporting their emotional development. We send the message to our child that paying attention to their emotional reaction is important, safe and we accept them as they are with these authentic feelings; indeed, emotions have evolved to serve a function and are there to send us a message. Validating someone’s emotional response does not mean you always have to agree with them, rather you are simply showing you understand how they feel.
Conversely, when we respond in an invalidating way and we dismiss, minimise or try and change our child’s spontaneous emotional response, we are encouraging our child to dismiss their emotional experience and reject the message that emotion is sending. We undermine their confidence and leave them emotionally confused.
There are many reasons why parents react in an invalidating way, from long-standing automatic responses, to the incorrectly held belief that dismissing negative emotions will help a child move on, to finding it too painful to sit with their child’s emotional distress or not having the energy to be generous-spirited and try and understand.
There has been mounting evidence over the last couple of decades to back up Marsha Linehan’s claim that if a young person’s caregivers are dismissive and invalidating, the child is at greater risk of long-term psychological difficulties. Measurable negative physical reactions (increased heart rate, increased sweating) and increased negative feelings have been observed as a consequence of parental invalidation. I have also regularly seen this in Clinical Practice, with teenagers who are depressed and self-harming, and when I ask them if they have shared their feelings with their parents, they tell me in various ways that their emotional responses are invalidated by their parents. –
‘They get angry at me – and say I have a nice house and go to a good school and am very lucky and what do I have to be sad about…’
‘I tried to tell my Dad how I was feeling and he walked outside to check the mailbox when I was half-way through explaining…’
‘They tell me to stop complaining and that they are too busy to talk about this right now…’
‘They tell me I am being ridiculous, so there is no point in trying to explain…’
I am not trying to scare you, and there are many factors which contribute to a teenager being depressed and self-harming. However, I cannot stress how powerful and important it is to try and validate your child, to hear their voice and try and understand their feelings. You’ll know when you get it right, as their intense emotions disperse and they seem more settled and able to move on. Doing it right is rewarding – and also reinforcing as it can often put an issue ‘to bed.’
In addition to subscription resources such as this, designed to educate and guide caregivers, all our Weaverbirds stories aim to openly state emotional responses of both child and significant adults, and for the adults to model responding in a validating way. We encourage children to share their feelings through our in-book ‘It’s good to share how you feel’ Activity, and have other Weaverbirds Activities available to use on our website which encourage sharing feelings.
We to continue to develop activities which explore paying attention to body clues and understanding the function of emotions. In the course of completing these exercises we would encourage parents and carers to keep in mind our ‘Tippy’s Validating Emotions: Parent’s Guide’ below. It is in a printer-friendly format and can be placed somewhere visible to provide reminders until validating becomes more automatic.
Linehan, M (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Shenk, C & Fruzzetti, A, (2011). The Impact of Validating and Invalidating Responses on Emotional Reactivity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
Siegel, DJ & Bryson, TP (2012). The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Bantam Books.