The power of validation
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
As therapists, we are taught about the power of validation in the therapeutic relationship. Validation is about understanding our clients' perspective and responding in a way that helps them feel seen. This validation is crucial before moving on to problem solving or providing suggestions on how to proceed. Validation reduces the intensity of emotion, allows for softening to occur and increases creativity to find new resources. When we are validated, we feel seen and safe enough to let down defences, allow people in for support and access our internal problem solving ability. This is the foundation of building a positive, connected relationship.
For our children
As parents, validation is a really powerful tool to help our children feel seen and safe. Often, we are so quick to move into problem solving mode to help our children feel better. But this approach can backfire if they don't feel we understand them fully first. As much as we want to help, moving too quickly can actually be an invalidating experience and send the message that their feelings don't matter.
We love our children so much and just want them to feel good all the time, free from suffering. It can be very uncomfortable to sit with their strong emotions, even for a minute. In order to move through our discomfort, we want them to get back to feeling happy as quickly as possible. The quickest route to "all better" is to try and fix the situation that's upsetting them.
Not only can this reinforce patterns of thoughts and behaviours that won't help them long term, like giving them the candy in line at the grocery store to stop the tantrum. But can also leave them feeling frustrated and misunderstood. Like when our child comes to us upset they didn't make the team, quickly highlighting all of the positives and suggesting what to do next time. Skipping over the feelings to get to the solution can possibly send an unintended message that feeling lousy is not okay. It misses an opportunity to build closeness and connection.
If we took the time to acknowledge the behaviour as well as the feelings behind the behaviour, they would learn that their feelings and behaviour make sense. They would learn that it's okay to not be okay sometimes. Disappointment, frustration, sadness and anger are all a part of being human. These feelings are normal and often quite justified. They learn to tolerate the discomfort that these feelings can bring. This helps them stay connected to their own experience and access what they need in a given moment.
For example, it makes sense that your toddler is having a tantrum because you've said no to the candy. Candy is fun and delicious! Rather than reinforcing the tantrum behaviour by giving him the candy, try empathizing with his feelings. Taking a second to show your toddler that you understand why he's having a tantrum and that his feelings make sense could help him calm down. Our temptation to scold or ignore in order to make the behaviour stop, will likely escalate the feelings. Now he feels misunderstood or invisible on top of feeling disappointed about not getting what he wants. By describing what you see, you're validating him and showing him that you understand him. He may be able to access a bit more of that internal self-regulation and calm down knowing that you are there for him in this moment despite not getting the delicious candy.
And for your teen who didn't make the team, take the time to sit with her as she shares all of her thoughts and feelings. Pause before trying to fix it to help her feel like you're in this with her and her feelings matter. Rather than provide suggestions for action, state how what she's thinking and feeling makes sense in this situation. This validation helps her know that you understand her. She will then feel more capable of exploring options to solve the problem for herself. She will learn more by you bearing witness to her experience and helping her see how her response is justified than by focusing on what to do next.
This same logic applies to ourselves. Validating our own feelings and experience can help us feel supported, even if no one is there to do it for us. It's amazing how often we push our feelings aside or ignore what we're really thinking about something. But those feelings don't go away, they can return in greater intensity, much like our toddler at the grocery store.
Using that example in the grocery store, what is going on in our mind and bodies when our child begins having a strong emotional reaction? We might feel embarrassment by the perceived judgement of the strangers around us. We might feel fear about what this means about how ungrateful or entitled our child is going to become. We might feel inadequate as a parent because our child seems so out of control in this moment.
So many thoughts could be swirling inside triggering feelings that will inform how we respond. Those feelings are very uncomfortable. Offering some validation to ourselves that our feelings and our child's reactions are normal, can help us remain composed. We could even offer some soothing touch like a hand on the heart or hand to the face to remind ourselves that it's okay to have these feelings. This validation helps our system calm down. Like our children, our feelings feel seen, understood and justified. Our stress response is likely to be less activated, allowing us to remain calm. We are then in a place where we can respond to ourselves, as well as our child with love and kindness.
Validation is a powerful tool and one that we can practice on a daily basis. As we practice, we build stronger relationships with ourselves and our children.