In one of my previous blogs I mentioned showing empathy for your child’s intense emotions by labeling what you think your child may be feeling. In this blog, I will take things further and provide some tips for validating feelings in others. What is validating?? Providing validation means that you express that a person’s feelings are reasonable and understandable given a particular situation or context. Validation DOES NOT mean agreement with a particular feeling. It also does not mean to imply that you would react to the same situation in the same manner. It also does not mean that you think a behavioral response to a particular emotion is appropriate. Validation IS all about addressing the FEELING.
In order to illustrate validation I will refer the reader to a popular You Tube video entitled “It’s not about the Nail!” (Follow link below). The video depicts a tongue-in-cheek disagreement between a couple where the tone, mood, and, energy escalate and then de-escalate almost like air releasing from a balloon once validation is used. The couple featured in the video are both adults; however, the concept and process of escalation during arguments and the power of validation in de-escalation are beautifully illustrated.
During intense arguments there is a tendency to debate, defend, distract, and “kitchen sink”. “Kitchen sinking” is a family therapy term that refers to the phenomenon of dredging up ”old” grievances and bringing these into the present argument. What this does is create a distraction so large that you forget why you started arguing in the first place. In addition, the intensity of the emotions has exponentially increased. This is one of those “traps” that one should be mindful of avoid during disagreements. Validation, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful yet simple tools that can be difficult to apply because of our own intense response to emotions in others.
Here is an example. Your child wakes up in the morning, after a poor night’s sleep. He eats a quick breakfast and turns on the TV the way he normally does before school. He looks for his favorite channel only to realize it’s not where it usually is on the remote. What he does not know is that the cable repair person came late last night to upgrade your service and the channels, as a result, were rearranged. You try to help but have a hard time finding the channel as well. As his frustration mounts, he begins to meltdown and scream and cry. You may have one of several responses:
A) In an attempt to distract him, you may say, “well it’s getting late and we don’t have too much time to get out of the house, so you may want to start getting ready.”
B) In an attempt to appease him you may say, “Don’t get mad or worried, mommy will find it soon and you’ll be able to watch your show.”
C) Evaluate his response or assess it based on how you would respond in that situation, “Geez, calm down you are making such a big deal out of something so small. It’s just a cartoon” This will likely infuriate him further.
D) React with anger and defensiveness, “I forgot to tell you the channels would be in different places, SO SUE ME!”
E) Or use validation, “This is a real drag, If I were you and I was tired and could not watch my favorite cartoon I would be really angry too. Someone should have warned you that the channels would be different. Let’s see what we can do to help make this easier or better.”
As described above, option E) accomplishes the various aspects of validation. It describes the intense reaction as something that is reasonable, understandable and expected within the context of his particular situation. He is tired, cranky, and as a 9 year old, finds pleasure in the routine of watching his favorite show in the morning while getting ready for school. This is what validation provides. As a parent you are not saying “it is okay to melt down when you are angry, I would do the same.” But…you are saying the feeling that precipitates the melt down is understandable. As with empathy, hearing someone say, “Hey, If I were in your shoes I might feel the same way” makes us feel better. From our own adult experiences, we know that this can provide some relief almost immediately. Sort of like the analogy of air being released from a balloon. Those of us with a good sense of body awareness can feel a bit lighter in our bodies and become aware of less tension in our neck/jaw/heads. We may also feel the position of our shoulders becoming slightly lower and feel a subjective sense of weight being lifted from our shoulders. This is the feeling you want your words to create in your child. This is not to imply that all of the air will be released from the metaphorical balloon but it will significantly take things down and notch.
So who among us is guilty of invalidation? ALL OF US! Spouses, teachers, bosses, and therapists alike have all been guilty of invalidating another person. How many times, have therapists had the reflex of saying to a suddenly tearful client, “Don’t cry!” in a moment of exasperation because the tears came unexpectedly. It is almost a knee-jerk response that exists despite years of training and “knowing better”. Validation is a difficult skill to master and takes lots of practice, however, mindfulness is helpful in allowing us to take a step back and keep our own feelings in check. Practice will make validation became more like second nature and will help to improve your relationships with all of the people in your life.
Video Link: “It’s not about the nail!”
Annette is a licensed clinical psychologist. She has a private practice in Park Slope and works with children with developmental delays and treats children/adolescents suffering from traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and related disorders. She incorporates cognitive-behavioral interventions with diverse clinical populations. She offers individual psychotherapy that focuses on building a child’s existing strengths and developing new ways of coping with difficult situations. She can be reached at: annette@brooklynletters.