What is Validation?
Validation is one of the most fundamental techniques used by psychologists to make clients feel heard and understood. It is also, in my opinion, the single most important tool parents can use to instill healthy emotion regulation skills in children and teenagers. Much of what we know about validation comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1993) an evidence-based treatment for individuals with significant difficulty regulating emotions. While everyone can benefit from validation, it is especially beneficial for children and teenagers prone to intense emotions, emotional outbursts, and problematic behavior. Validation provides a way to:
- Defuse intense emotions
- Decrease problem behaviors stemming from intense emotions
- Decrease parent-child conflicts
- Strengthen the parent-child relationship
- Encourage parent-child communication
- Trigger more adaptive thoughts and feelings
- Lay the foundation for behavioral changes and the use of new coping strategies
Invalidation & Problem-Solving
Imagine going to the doctor in a state of distress over the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. You try to describe your symptoms but don’t feel like the doctor is listening or understanding. You attempt to communicate your concerns more forcefully, and get the sense that the doctor feels you’re overreacting. He then rattles off a list of things you’ve been doing wrong and things he wants you to do differently. How likely would you be to trust or turn to this doctor in the future? How would you feel walking away from this appointment? How likely would you be to follow his recommendations?
People with emotion regulation difficulties often find themselves in situations similar to the one described above. When they feel as if their thoughts and feelings are being dismissed, minimized or misunderstood (i.e., invalidated), emotions become more intense as they try to get others to understand.
When children and teens are in emotional crisis, well-meaning parents frequently jump into problem-solving mode, telling their children what they should do. While parents frequently have great advice or suggestions to share, timing is everything, and kids in a state of high emotion are unlikely to be receptive to such strategies. Thinking of the example used above, how likely would you be to follow the advice and recommendations of a doctor who hadn’t been interested in hearing or understanding your experiences first?
What Validation is Not
Validating your child’s thoughts, feelings or actions does not mean that you like or agree with them. It simply means that you acknowledge his or her feelings and understand (or are attempting to understand) where he or she is coming from.
How to Validate
Listen attentively and actively.
Communicate that you are paying attention (e.g., maintain eye contact) and observe the thoughts and feelings that your child is communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. Repeat back what you hear your child saying (e.g., “You were really hurt when he said you couldn’t sit with him”), which conveys to your child that he or she has been heard and understood, and treat your child’s report of his or her experiences as the truth.
State the unstated.
Consider what your child has communicated, both verbally and non-verbally, and attempt to vocalize the unspoken thoughts and feelings that you’ve detected. Frame your thoughts as a guess (e.g., “I wonder if you’re angry…”) rather than a fact (e.g., “You’re angry”). Consider whether problem behaviors are an attempt to relieve emotional pain. Look for the ways in which your child’s thoughts and feelings make sense given his or her history and current situation, then express this aloud (e.g., “I can see why you’re so hurt given the way you were treated”).
Evaluate your effectiveness.
Pay attention to how your child responds to your attempts to validate. Consider whether negative emotions increased or decreased in intensity, and whether your child’s communication increased or decreased. Explicitly ask your child how you can be most helpful to him or her in that moment.
Practice, practice, practice (and then practice some more)!
Validation is a skill and like any other it becomes more effective and natural with practice. Like learning to play the piano, it may sound clunky at first. Everyone can benefit from validation (that’s why it’s one of the most basic tools that psychologists use), so practice using it with others in low-pressure, low-conflict situations. Hoping to use validation in high-pressure situations (e.g., when your child is in crisis) without first practicing extensively in low-pressure situations would set you up for failure, much like a novice not practicing the piano but hoping to perform well in a recital.
The Role of Therapy
When parents have intense emotions or have difficulty managing emotions themselves, validating their children’s emotions without becoming overwhelmed by their own emotions can be challenging. Both parents and kids who have difficulty managing intense emotions and/or engage in problematic or out-of-control behavior can benefit greatly from learning emotion regulation skills, decreasing maladaptive coping, and addressing underlying issues in therapy. Empirically-supported treatments (i.e., treatments that have been researched in clinical trials and found to be effective), including DBT, are available at the Center for Integrated Behavioral Health for emotional regulation difficulties as well as other clinical problems and disorders.
Harvey, P., & Penzo, J. A. (2009). Parenting a child who has intense emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills to help your child regulate emotional outbursts and aggressive behaviors. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Hollander, M. (2008). Helping teens who cut: Understanding and ending self-injury. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Koerner, K. (2012). Doing Dialectal Behavior Therapy: A practical guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Miller, A. L., Rathus, J. H., & Linehan, M. M. (2007). Dialectical Behavior Therapy with suicidal adolescents. New York, NY: Guilford Press.