The Power of Validation
Have you ever had someone tell you that you were “being too sensitive” or “overreacting” to something?
How’d that work out for them? How did you feel about them after they said that?
If someone tells me that I’m overreacting it is highly likely that I will also “overreact” to being told that. So, y’know, probably don’t do that.
Recently my son was sitting at the kitchen table having finished his dinner, his dessert, his post-dessert snack, and his post-snack snack. (Side note: some ADHD meds can suppress appetite, so when they wear off children can become ravenous). Our son reads throughout all his meals (and pretty much everything he does). Eating is boring (thanks ADHD), so we must be entertained while eating.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, child reading, as usual. My husband was across the kitchen from our son, trying (unsuccessfully) to ask him to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Darling child may have grunted in acknowledgement (he’s 8, by the way, not 14), but did not actually look up from his book and engage in conversation, nor get up from his seat to head upstairs. My husband began to get frustrated at being ignored in favour of a book (sorry, dear— love ya, but reading is much more interesting than being told to go to bed).
The Power of Validating Feelings
I sat down beside our son at the kitchen table and gently put my hand on his shoulder (some kids with ADHD need physical contact in order to redirect their attention to you — some hate this, so know the child’s preferences first). When he made half eye-contact with me, I said “Buddy, I know it’s really hard to stop reading when you are enjoying your book. I notice Daddy has been trying to speak to you.” Our son looked surprised to learn of this, looked at his Dad, and this time went upstairs when asked. The funny thing is that our son walks, brushes his teeth, and goes to the bathroom all while reading, so he didn’t really have to stop reading to do what he was asked. He only had to stop reading long enough to communicate with the humans attempting to make contact.
The truly powerful part of this exchange wasn’t about reading or getting PJs on at all. The powerful part was validating his experience by compassionately acknowledging that what we were asking was difficult for him in that moment.
Children often feel that adults don’t “get” them. They seem to think adults are a strange alien species, that their parents were never children, and adults certainly never experienced anything resembling a childhood. Feeling misunderstood is even more true for neurodiverse children. Their brains work differently from that of neurotypical brains (hence the term neurodiverse), so sometimes people really do have difficulty understanding them.
Having someone you care about acknowledge, name, and validate your feelings when you feel like nobody gets it can be very profound. I have seen highly dysregulated children calm down significantly simply by having their feelings and experience acknowledged, named, and validated.
Children can get worked up and very upset about things adults don’t think are a big deal. Whether we agree with their feelings is not the point. As I said in my previous blog post, emotions are not rational, so do not expect them to be. When we are experiencing intense feelings, the parts of our brain responsible for complex reasoning and decision making are acquiescing to the parts of our brain dedicated to emotions and instincts. We can worry about logic and problem-solving later. We first need to focus on helping our children work through their emotions with support, comfort, and co-regulation.
I have seen highly dysregulated children calm down significantly simply by having their feelings and experience acknowledged, named, and validated.
Although feelings are not rational, they are still very real. While being told they can’t have that toy they really, really, really want may not actually put our child’s life in peril, the feelings of disappointment and sadness they feel are entirely real and valid.
One of the most important lessons I want our son to learn is that we can still care about his feelings even if we don’t “give in” to what he wants. If we tell him no and he is very upset about this, we can feel empathy for his sadness while at the same time knowing we have made the right decision.
If we invalidate children’s experiences, or encourage them to suppress their emotions by punishing them, they will not learn healthy ways to manage those feelings. Naming feelings and showing compassion helps children develop social-emotional skills, helps them become more self-aware, and normalizes feeling a range of emotions.
Positive Parenting has a very good article on different ways in which we can validate children’s emotions.
For more information on helping children cope with intense emotions, visit our blog post “Misbehaviour is STRESS Behaviour”