Think about how you feel when a friend, spouse or partner acknowledges what you are experiencing emotionally, just allows you to have and express emotion (without judgement or unsolicited advice). Your perspective and experience are valued. It can help hard moments, even when no problems are solved or when issues are not necessarily “solvable”.
Simply reflecting the feelings and identifying the emotion in a situation can improve a person’s willingness to communicate and share thoughts that build closeness. Yet, consider how it feels to have another person recognize your feelings then right away point out what you could have done differently to prevent a difficult situation or undesired outcome. How it feels if someone dismisses or minimizes your feelings when an outcome was not in your control.
The act of acknowledging the feeling is the point here. Especially when a child or teen seems overwhelmed by emotion. Feelings pass. They change in intensity. They are not bad or right or wrong or need to be argued against. This is not the time for “teaching” for “correcting” or “scolding, I told you so”. When parents acknowledge and pause without a lecture or command, a remarkable emotional shift can happen. This can lead to better reflection, self-awareness, and future communication.
Step 1: Validate and Pause
- Breathe slowly
- Look at your child and try to see situation from his or her perspective
- Calm your voice and tone
- Calm and relax your face, your hands, let go of muscle tension to reduce intensity
- Label and reflect the FEELING (sad, angry, scared, excited, frustrated)
- Take a pause. (Wait and keep breathing calmly especially when the child is very upset. Minimize what you say- the more a child is upset the less you say here).
It is not always easy to calmly validate a child’s feelings or experience when a reaction does not seem reasonable or understandable to you. Just reflecting the feeling and trying to see it from the child’s perspective is the start. It sends the message that “I see you” and “I accept and can handle your emotions”.
This approach is particularly helpful when emotions are strong. When a child is very upset and when you, as a parent, might be triggered, tired, and surprised by a reaction. Sometimes this reflection and pause is enough. A child/teen has space to feel the feeling and can move on.
Validating or reflecting feelings does not mean agreeing with behavior. It does not
mean accepting any reaction or not having expectations for appropriate actions. It also does not always mean understanding an emotional response. However, just repeating back and labeling the feeling calmly will often allow a more productive conversation about the reasons for the response.
The child does not have to get his or her way for an unreasonable demand. Validating a feeling or emotional reaction to an experience does not mean allowing aggressive, hurtful, or destructive behavior. Consistent consequences and discipline might need to occur depending on the BEHAVIOR. Expectations for behavior and how to express strong emotions are essential for safety and helping a child learn to regulate and function well at home and school. When the behaviors are problematic then problem solving options and choices for how to manage strong emotions is needed later when everyone is truly calm.
Step 2: AND not BUT…. A helpful one-word switch
When a child is feeling angry, sad, scared, frustrated, disappointed, excited, happy etc. it is also important that validating the feeling state is not “invalidated” by the word “BUT”. Consider how it feels when someone dismisses, minimizes, or ignores your expressed emotions.
Reflecting a child’s feeling then blaming the child is not comforting or relationship strengthening (e.g, “Oh, you burned your finger look sad, that must hurt, BUT I told you not to touch the hot stove, so…”). Dismissing a feeling can also occur with BUT (e.g., “You are feeling scared to get the shot, BUT it is no big deal” vs “You said you are feeling scared to get the shot, I know this is hard AND I know you can do it”. “You are disappointed that it is raining so you can’t meet your friends at the beach, BUT we can’t control the weather” vs “I see you are disappointed, AND I understand why, you were looking forward to being with your friends”. Telling a child what to do “you are feeling angry BUT you better calm down” vs “you are feeling angry AND that is hard. What can I do to help?”).
Using the word “AND” rather than “BUT” when validating a child’s feelings can shorten tantrums, reduce anger, encourage courage, and generally help regulate negative emotions faster. This is not the time to tell a child how to feel, to dismiss or minimize feelings. Try to take your child’s perspective before reacting.
Having rules and expectations for behavior is important. If emotions are expressed in aggressive ACTIONS, there should be a later opportunity to address underlying issues and problem solve, and to talk about behavior choices. (*Of course, if your child is behaving aggressive or you are having a hard time managing your reaction STEP AWAY to calm. Make sure child is SAFE (and remove potentially dangerous objects).
Having negative thoughts and emotions and learning how to express these productively will help build social emotional skills and resiliency. Validating the feelings and experiences of your child or teen will strengthen your relationship.
For more about levels of validation see: https://psychcentral.com/blog/emotionally-sensitive/2012/02/understanding-the-levels-of-validation#1