Knowing how to respond to your child’s Big Emotion can be tough. One way to begin tackling this intimidating task is by first offering validation. It is important to remember that children are still learning about their emotions and developing their ability to regulate them in the moment, making it particularly impactful to foster this growth through the use of validation.
Validating your child allows them to feel heard, acknowledged, understood, and accepted. Validation reinforces the message that your child’s feelings are legitimate, regardless of whether or not the feeling “makes sense” to anyone else (Lambie, Lambie, & Sadek, 2020).
Validation encourages children to share their feelings and encourages open communication about emotions. Through validation, a parent can teach their child that all feelings are okay and acceptable and that you are comfortable with even the most uncomfortable feelings.
We, as parents, often feel the need to rescue our children and “make better,” by helping our children to stop feeling “bad;” we tend to put on our problem-solving hats. While we can help our children by teaching coping skills, it is important to remind both ourselves and our children that we do not want to “fix” by getting rid of the feelings themselves. Instead, we should validate that the feelings exist, and we can help to tolerate and manage them.
A parent’s validating response does not always mean that we believe the intensity of the child’s feelings are justified (e.g., why does my child feel the need to cry and scream when all I did was put their red cup in the sink), but rather we understand and accept that how they might feel is valid and true for them.
Remember, feelings are separate from actions. All feelings are valid, but actions taken in response to negative emotions may be inappropriate. For example, validating anger does not mean that the expression of their anger is acceptable (i.e., yelling or throwing something). To teach a child that they are allowed to feel angry is extremely healthy, but we also want to teach them not to respond inappropriately when angry. Rather than teaching a child not to be angry, we can teach them how to manage the anger that they will inevitably have in more effective ways.
Similarly, validating feelings does not equate to permissive parenting. For example, their anxiety and frustration at mom leaving for work is completely valid and should be acknowledged as such. However, that does not mean that mom should stay home from work. A quick validating statement, such as “I know it is really hard when I leave for work in the morning, and I know that you can be brave” shows your child that you accept how they are feeling, as you simultaneously set expectations and boundaries.
Validation comes in many forms, including but not limited to:
- Nonverbal validation: facial expressions, body language, gestures, tone of voice, gaze
- Sitting quietly and listening
- Telling someone you are listening carefully
Validation can be hard, especially when big emotions are at play; no parent wants to see their child in distress. It is, therefore, important to remind ourselves that we are teaching a valuable life lesson and helping our children both in the short and long term.
Lambie, J. A., Lambie, H. J., and Sadek, S. (2020). “My child will actually say ‘I am upset’…Before all they would do was scream”: Teaching parents emotion validation in a social care setting. Child Care Health Development, 46(5), 627-636.