Emotional Validation in Childhood Can Lead to Better Mental Health and Well-Being
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Last Friday evening, I was walking down the street (with my covid mask on, of course) when I overheard a mom and dad telling their son to, “stop being such a baby, it’s not a big deal” after he had dropped his ice cream on the ground and had started to cry. It reminded me of the importance of validating our children’s emotions, even when those emotions seem unnecessary or polar opposite of how we’d react in the same situation.
What is Emotional Validation?
Marsha Linehan (a.k.a. the creator of DBT), defined validation as the ability to convey to another person, that their feelings and emotions are understood. Within your family unit, this means that you are trying to non-judgementally accept your child’s emotions or emotional experience.
It’s important to remember that validation is about accepting the emotional experience of your son or daughter and not necessarily about accepting their behaviours or thoughts. An example of this would be: “I can see how angry you are with your sister, but instead of pushing her, tell her what you want with your words.”
Parental Pointer: When your child is experiencing “big feelings” and their emotions are heightened, it’s often best to hold off on problem solving and brainstorming solutions. Simply start with validating how they’re feeling in the moment. Problem solving can come later down the road, when they’ve calmed down and are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.
Why is Emotional Validation Important?
Research tells us that when you validate your child’s feelings, you are fostering healthy emotional regulation and expression. You’re helping your child to notice, understand, and label their feelings. The ability to recognize the whole range of their emotional experience, from happiness, sadness, anger, and joy, in turn promotes self-confidence, empathy, and stronger communication skills.
In addition, validation signals to your child that you accept them whether they’re a blubbering mess or a bucket of sunshine. Feeling accepted and understood creates bondedness in your relationship with them. It also creates a safe space for parent-child communication. When children feel validated and accepted, they will be more willing to listen to you and to alter their own behaviours.
Examples of Validation:
Feelings and emotions.
“I can see you’re really sad right now.”
Legitimacy in wanting something.
“I know you really wanted _________ but right now________.”
Acknowledging how hard it can be to feel different than other people, despite wanting to be the same or similar.
“I know how hard it can be to feel different than other people.”
Normalizing-acknowledgement that their reaction was reasonable.
“I’d be hurt if my friend said that to me too.”
What is Emotional Invalidation?
Emotional invalidation happens when you convey to someone that their emotional experience is not acceptable or warranted and that they should push away or even hide their feelings. Essentially, their emotional responses are being penalized or punished.
Punishing or discouraging emotional responses is often used as a tactic by parents to calm their child or to protect them from uncomfortable feelings. However, discouraging these responses usually has the opposite effect, resulting in a pressure cooker of feelings where the emotion intensifies, and the response is heightened. In addition, children who are invalidated do not learn how to express or regulate their feelings, making them more vulnerable to emotion dysregulation as adults. Children will learn to suppress and hide their feelings, even feel guilty and ‘wrong’ which can lead to insecurity and self-doubt.
Parental Pointer: Try not to minimize your child’s problems. Many of the teens that I work with say they feel that their parents dismiss their issues and worries. They’ll say something like: “my parents don’t think my struggles are a big deal.”
Examples of Invalidation:
“Let it go.”
“Stop being so sensitive.”
“It could have been worse.”
“It doesn’t bother anyone else, why do you feel upset?”
Remember that practice makes perfect. Once you start validating, it will be amazing how your child starts to respond differently to you.
I also challenge you to start validating yourself, an important steppingstone to foster self-compassion. First start by noticing your feelings and then practice accepting your feelings. Self validating statements tend to look like this: “this is hard, what do I need to cope and make myself feel better?” or “everyone makes mistakes, it’s part of the process of learning and growing.”
Remember that no feelings are bad or wrong. It’s just that some feelings are more uncomfortable than others. Not everyone feels the same way that you would feel, when placed in the same situation. And that’s ok!! (exclamation ok).