Written by Susan H. Christiansen
Table of Contents
- Is Validation Really Important?
- The Difference Between Validation and Agreement
- Symptoms of an Invalidating Environment
- How Do Children Respond to Emotional Invalidation?
- What to Do When Parents Have a Hard Time Regulating Their Emotions
- Are Parents Responsible for How Their Children Turn Out?
Is Validation Really Important?
For many families, arguments are commonplace while emotional validation is missing. A parent and child yelling at each other isn’t healthy but can become a habit that becomes a go-to response in stressful situations.
The word “validation” in this context is understood to mean the feeling of being accepted, acknowledged, understood, and seen. It demonstrates empathy to the other person AND is also authentic to who we are and what we think.
Consider this example of a validating conversation:
Your child is upset because they received a low score on a test. They stomp into the living room and sit down on the couch with a loud sigh.
Parent: Hey, Katie. Is everything okay?
Katie: Yeah, I’m fine. (with a sad voice)
Parent: How did school go today? (wondering what’s wrong)
Katie: Not good.
Parent: Oh? . . . (inviting conversation)
Katie: Yeah. (silence)
Parent: What happened? (comes over to sit down on the couch beside Katie and looks her in the eyes)
Katie: You know that biology test I was worried about? The one I’ve been studying for the whole weekend? (takes another big breath and sighs again)
Parent: Yes, I remember you telling me about it.
Katie: Well, it was today. And I think I bombed it. Even after all the studying I did. It’s not fair. (spoken in an emotional voice)
Parent: Oh, no. You think you got a bad grade? Why?
Katie: Yeah, and I don’t know why? I was so sure I studied what would be on the test.
Parent: I’m so sorry you feel sad and hopeless. I know you studied really hard for this exam. (giving Katie a hug and holding her)
Katie: Yeah (as she starts to choke on her emotions)
Parent: (patiently and silently hugs Katie for a few minutes until she seems to let go of some tension and relax)
Parent: I love you, Katie. You worked and studied to prepare. You did your best. Perhaps you did better than you think you did. And if you did do poorly, maybe you can talk to your teacher about doing extra credit or something else to make up some points.
Parent: Will you let me know when you receive your test grade so we can talk about it some more then?
Katie: Yeah, sure.
Parent: Is there anything I’ve missed or that I don’t understand?
Katie: Nope. That’s it.
Parent: Okay. Thanks for sharing this with me. I’m here for you if you want to talk about it some more. I love you. (gives child a quick hug before standing up to leave)
Sharon Selby, a clinical counselor who specializes in helping children, teens, and their families, has a blog post that lists examples of empathy statements parents can use to connect with their children. Her work is insightful and easy for a parent to use.
The Difference Between Validation and Agreement
When the purpose of the interaction is to understand what the other person is saying and feeling, “validation” and “agreement” are separate parts of the discussion. Expressing validation is not equal to agreeing with the topic under discussion.
Validation – Expressing words of assurance recognizes your child’s thoughts, concerns, decisions, and feelings at that time. Your child’s state of being is acknowledged.
Parents can model emotional validation to help both parties under stress feel safe enough to expose vulnerability.
Agreement – This means that you agree with the other person’s viewpoint.
Symptoms of an Invalidating Environment
So, what happens when a family is dysfunctional? Let’s briefly talk about four sub-topics that impact our environment and how they help or hurt a validating climate:
- Nonverbal communication
- Monologues vs. dialogues
- Children’s fragile nature
Nonverbal Communication Rules
Parents express, both verbally and nonverbally, how they feel about their children. Research suggests that 93% of human communication is nonverbal.
There is a quote attributed to words Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote regarding actions being louder than words:
“What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.”
Micro-Expressions Don’t Lie
Humans do something intriguing.
During our communication with other people:
1) We consciously decide what expression to wear on our faces, what words to say, how to pose our bodies, etc.
2) What we DON’T do consciously is display micro-expressions. A micro-expression is the feeling a person shows before they slip on the conscious mask. Think of these as fleeting emotions or masked emotions.
Scientists first discovered micro-expressions in 1966. While studying films for communication patterns, scientists noticed that sometimes a person’s expression would rapidly change.
They found that micro-expressions are self-defense mechanisms.
For instance, the person on film might change their facial expression from a smile to a frown and back to a smile again in a brief period.
The facial expression changed in one-eighth to one-fifth of one second and was overlooked when running the film at normal speed.
Scientists now know that micro-expressions can be spontaneous and deliberate.
Micro-expressions are organized into seven main classes: anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, and contempt.
“Each emotion also has unique signals, the most identifiable being in the face and the voice.”
When we are sad, for example, our voices automatically become softer and lower, and the inner corners of our eyebrows are pulled up.
Children can sense when what they are hearing does not match with what they are seeing. Parents should try to be respectful and honest in their interactions while displaying kindness and empathy.
Parenting Detective Work Required
As parents, try to be a little more perceptive while talking to your child. Are they displaying micro-expressions that can help you better understand how they are feeling? Are they showing fleeting expressions of deception or depression?
Emotions and the accompanying expressions can also have more than one root cause. When your child expresses anger at you for wanting to talk to them, the anger they feel could be related to past interactions with you or could be related to an exchange they had with their friend.
Use micro-expressions together with other clues to help you better understand your child.
The Difference Between a Dialogue and a Monologue
Dialogue is a two-way conversation. Each person is aware of their two roles – listener and speaker. They seek to understand and validate the other person’s right to feel or think a particular way while also being aware of their own thoughts and feelings.
On the other hand, a monologue is a form of communication in which the speaker is more concerned with their own needs, thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
They are not looking for clues to whether the other person understands them nor are they interested in what the other person has to say. It’s essentially one-way communication.
Think about whether you have a dialogue with your children or whether you monologue “at” your children.
A Child’s Fragility
Children are fragile. Wallace Goddard, Ph.D., taught:
“Look on them [your kids] with compassion. Far more often than we realize, children come home injured by the painful encounters with life. We don’t realize how frightened and wounded they are. Understand their pains rather than offer judgment and impatience. “The Soft-Spoken Parent
If your child experiences any of these situations, there is probably work to be done to help your child feel safe and accepted.
Parents are the primary influence in their children’s lives. Here are a few critical responses that hurt and damage a child’s sense of self and safety:
- told their feelings are somehow wrong
- told they are whiney
- told they are ignorant or stupid
- ignored even when there is an apparent concern
- ridiculed or mocked for having distressing feelings about something
- parents deliberately misunderstand a situation
- parents may deny what the child is saying
A critical response leads to a child distrusting her emotions and thinking there must be something wrong with her.
Eventually, she will start to discount her feelings and stop seeking empathy and validation from others. Avoidance or rigidity in her feelings will affect her mental and physical health as well.
It is not unusual for children to deeply internalize a parent’s careless words or actions. This pain may be carried into the future and impact many decisions and relationships.
How Do Children Respond to Emotional Invalidation?
Children are ill-equipped to deal with an invalidating environment. They are biologically programmed to look to parents for safety, guidance, and nurturing.
Children can become confused and turn to negative peer groups or self-harm to release some of their tension. This list documents a few clues for how your children are feeling.
Children may turn to self-harming behaviors to garner attention. Negative attention is better than no attention.
2. Personality Mismatch
Shy kids born to outgoing parents may be teased about being quiet. Introverted parents may act like their outgoing child is a burden.
3. Emotional Outbursts
Children who feel unsafe may express emotional distress by being mean, crying, instigating fights, or acting like they don’t care about anything.
4. Sleep Issues
Children under a great deal of stress may have difficulty sleeping at night. Their bodies are too full of adrenaline to relax. Their minds are worrying over things they control.
5. Physical Discomfort
Stress is often expressed through pain in the body. Children may start to have stomachaches or shoulder blades that are too tight. They may begin to have headaches and start forgetting things.
6. Internalizing Emotions
Repeated emotional assaults result in children internalizing emotions. They begin to feel anxious as if people they care about are right. They may start to feel they deserve to be punished or ashamed for feeling the way they do.
These feelings of shame and anxiety color all their interactions and hinder their ability to experience, tolerate, and express their feelings. Sometimes, it feels better to turn off our feelings than experience pain repeatedly.
7. Power Discrepancies
Family scientists define power:
“. . . in terms of who is able to influence others to get their way in the family, and who is able to block others from getting their way.”
Parents are often unaware of how the power dynamic affects children and teens. It can be a sense of comfort when all members are considered or an oppressing weight for frequently overruled or traumatized children.
What to Do When Parents Have a Hard Time Regulating Their Emotions
Parents can improve a validating environment by regulating their own emotions.
Parents have a heavy-duty opportunity here.
Parents need to model appropriate emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is easier for some parents than others.
However, all parents have a responsibility to regulate their emotions, no matter their upbringing. People can change behavior. New ways of doing things can stop damaging generational cycles.
Indicators of Parental Struggle With Emotions
Here are some indicators that show when parents have a hard time regulating their emotions:
- low tolerance for vulnerable feelings
- get annoyed quickly when a child seems needy
- is angry when their child gets emotional
- says things like, “Keep it up. I’ll give you something to cry about.”
- parents may get panicky or overwhelmed during stressful situations
Getting panicked or overwhelmed is an unhelpful response because now the child’s feelings become more complicated. Now they are also worried about how the parents are feeling. They may feel guilty for making the parent feel bad because of their problems.
“If children feel guilty about expressing their feelings because it makes others feel bad, children may develop a guilt complex about seeking out others for support or help.” Psychologist Brad Peters
Here’s a great video from psychologist Brad Peters titled, “Helping Your Child Regulate Emotions.“
Emotion Coaching is a method whereby parents are taught to regulate their emotions better, influencing how their children handle their feelings. Parents learn to recognize and manage their own responses before teaching these essential skills to their children.
The Gottman Institute has excellent resources and a blog post specifically on this topic, “An Introduction to Emotion Coaching.” The blog post aims to teach parents the necessary skills to model emotional regulation for their children.
There are no perfect parents. Every parent makes mistakes. When you catch yourself losing control of your emotions, own it. Admit it.
Put yourself in time out if you need to. Show your kids that it’s okay and completely normal to make mistakes, not know what to do, or occasionally blow it.
Once you are aware of an issue, you have a responsibility to do something about it, so your children don’t struggle with the same problems in their lives.
You can stop, reassure your child that you do care, then model appropriate behavior.
Are Parents Responsible for How Their Children Turn Out?
Parental emotions influence a child’s behavior; they do not necessarily determine it. Parenting is hard work. We experience stronger emotions because we care more about our children than random strangers or even friends.
While we have a significant impact on our children, our behavior does not determine how their lives will turn out.
Parents do impact how children learn strategies to regulate emotions. Those skills improve the quality of our interactions within our families and in society.
As we teach our children how to demonstrate validation, they will use this skill to develop friendships, solve problems, and develop a sense of safety and self-worth.