22 Apr Am I creating a validating environment?
The emotional environment in which a child is raised impact’s their ability to manage their emotions, control their behavioral urges, and feel confident in their ability to accurately assess their environment. Children raised in an environment in which they don’t feel accepted or understood are at higher risk for mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, oppositional behavioral disorders, and substance use.
Invalidation is when an individual doesn’t feel understood or accepted. Although invalidation can be direct, such as verbal, physical or sexual abuse, most often parents unintentionally invalidate their children. It is difficult to see one’s child in pain and parents may attempt to sooth their child by minimizing the child’s distress (“Everything is ok”, “You’re fine”, or “There is nothing to be upset about”). At other times parents feel responsible for their child’s challenges and try to fix them, without first connected with the child and directly acknowledging their experience. Alternatively, parents may ignore or avoid their child’s pain because it is difficult to acknowledge the level of distress their child is experiencing.
When a child or adolescent doesn’t feel understood or accepted they become emotionally dysregulated and behave oppositionally. They transition from saying they are sad to demonstrating that they are miserable. Additionally, whatever the child was initially hurt or saddened by is now compounded by a deep sense of invalidation, or a sense of feeling alone, misunderstood, judged, or unvalued.
Some of the most common ways we invalidate others are by:
- Behaving as though your child isn’t worthy of your full attention. All parents have to multitask to survive. Multitasking, or half-listening, while a child is in distress communicates that their pain is not a priority.
- Immediately engaging in a counter argument. Stating your opinion instead of acknowledging the message your child is communicating verbally or behaviorally.
- Getting stuck in the details or interrogating your child. Asking the “who, what, when, where” questions rather than focusing on the overall message your child is communicating.
- Focusing on attaining control and giving commands. Demanding behavioral changes quickly and without acknowledging the context of the issues at hand. For example, your child may be tired or hungry and, as a result, have a more difficult time managing their emotions or behaviors. In this moment they may need some flexibility in your expectations of them.
- Decreasing their sense of safety. Warning or threatening your child, without understanding the context of what is happening, is invalidating, as is being coercive or aggressive. Be aware of what your child experiences as threating. From a child’s perspective an adult standing over them and raising their voice can be very scary. Get on your child’s level, make eye contact, and speak in a modulated volume.
- Evading or avoiding the point. Focusing on your own point of view instead of trying to listen to your child’s experience or perspective.
- Being critical or judgmental. Focusing on the negatives while excluding the positives.
- Communicating with “Shoulds” or “Ought tos”. Telling your child what to think, feel, or do.
- Treating your child with disrespect and not acknowledging it or repairing it. Parents are human and, therefore, imperfect. Parents mess up. Parents say and do things they regret later. Not acknowledging this teaches your child that they deserve to be treated in a disrespectful manner.
- Prioritizing “winning” or “being right” over maintaining a loving and respectful relationship.
- Ignoring your child’s emotions – not acknowledging their sadness, anxiety, or frustration.
In contrast, when someone communicates that another’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are understandable and that the person is accepted as an individual he/she feels validated. Validation helps a child feel heard and understood, which decreases their emotional distress. When a parent validates their child they improve their relationship by increasing the child’s sense of safety within the relationship. Validation demonstrates a sense of self-respect and respect towards others. Once a child feels validated problem solving becomes possible. For change to be possible, a child needs to first feel understood and accepted.
Some of the most effective ways to validate others are to:
- Listen. Communicate that your child is worthy of your full attention and focus. Actively hear them. Make good eye contact and physically face them. Often we half listen to others while attempting to multitask. We watch television while playing a game on our phone or respond to a text while talking to another person. Disengage from all other tasks and distractions and be present with your child.
- Identify your child’s current emotion and acknowledge it in a nonjudgmental way. It communicates that you are both aware of their emotions and that their emotions are an important piece of the current conversation.
- Summarize your child’s perspective descriptively and objectively. Focus on using nonjudgmental language and don’t add information which reflects your perspective.
- Acknowledge how your child’s thoughts, actions, or behaviors are understandable in the broader context of their life and experiences.
- Remain mindful of the relationship and your goal of having a respectful and loving relationship.
- Slow down before responding. Focus on responding rather than reacting.
- Focus on identifying what is valid in your child’s message. Reflect back to your child what you are understanding and confirm that your understanding is accurate. Focus on using objective and nonjudgmental language.
- Validate nonverbally. Respond in a way that communicates you are prioritizing their needs. Give them space to calm down if they need it. If they are feeling alone or hurt, just staying with them, in silence, can be very validating.
For further information on how to create a validating environment I recommend Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors by Pat Harvey and Jeanine Penzo.
Holly A. Hart, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist