The Importance of Validating Children’s Emotions

The Importance of Validating Children’s Emotions

When our children feel bad, we might often want to make them feel better instantly. Paying attention to what we say is important because invalidating feelings could ultimately lead to our children feeling worse. Actually, invalidating the feelings of our family members could be especially damaging to their mental health.

Emotional invalidation is the explicit or implicit rejection, minimization, or dismissal of one’s feelings. Feelings of invalidation are associated with problems in a child’s social-emotional development and psychological distress in adulthood. That's because invalidation conveys that a person’s subjective emotional experience is inaccurate, insignificant, and/or unacceptable. The invalidated person could leave the conversation feeling lost, confused, and struggling with feelings of self-doubt.

Types of Invalidation and how they might present.

There are generally three types of invalidation.

  • Punitive - Punishing or restricting the privileges of a child could be invalidating. For example, sending a child to their room for bad performance on a test does not get to the root of the issue or seek to understand the child. That child might have very real learning deficiencies that could continue to go unnoticed when their experience is ignored. Statements like “I don't wanna hear it” or “I'm not having this discussion” might accompany this scenario. The silent treatment might also be a form of invalidation. Remember, validation does not mean we agree with the child's subjective reality. Validation means giving the child space to exist and letting their emotions be known. Simply being present and listening to a contrary emotional state is a strong start to creating a positive environment.
  • Minimizing- Dismissing the importance of our child's emotion or redirecting their attention without addressing the real issue is extremely invalidating. Statements like “It could be worse” or “At least it's not as bad as…” These statements could be delivered with good intentions. Discomfort comes when we see children struggle, and we want to just see a smile emerge, but by doing so, we might keep our child feeling alone. Instead, we should ask more questions and learn what is bothering our children. We want our children to know that it is okay to feel a range of emotions and that we will be there for them unconditionally. When we make that space, we join our children on their journey, and then we can better teach them the skills they might need as they grow.
  • Distress- Our own distress as parents might lead to dysregulation in ourselves. We are unable to be there for our children as best as we can when we ourselves are dysregulated. Understanding our own stress and behavior is crucial. Parents who experience this might lash out and say things like, “Just get on with it!” or “If you don’t stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about”. Emotions often find a way to be expressed, and when we encourage our children to suppress their feelings, we can cause their discomfort to grow. Harmfully stuffing emotions away and brushing them aside will lead to greater psychological distress which could lead to all sorts of problems.

What to do Moving Forward

Taking a child's emotional needs seriously could be tough, especially for those of us who did not experience that ourselves. Doing that work and making the space to validate effectively could help us raise compassionate children with healthy emotional outcomes. Children learn to respect their own feelings when they see that we also respect them. We are modeling the way our children communicate with themselves and others when we engage with them. In stages, we want to acknowledge their emotions “I see your hurt,” reflect and describe their feelings from their perspective, “That makes you angry when..” and stay with them through the conversation, staying mostly silent, giving them room to talk. If you want to explain a viewpoint or talk through something, wait for another time. Simply being with your child through their struggles and listening to them is one of the best ways to support their emotional development.

Don't forget!

  • Validation does not mean you agree with a viewpoint. You can communicate that an emotion is valid without agreeing with the emotion.
  • Avoid being defensive or giving advice; try to focus on listening.
  • The deeper you try to understand someone, the more likely they will feel validated. Active listening is a crucial skill.
  • Feeling reflections and summaries could help the person feel heard and allow them to expand on their feelings. Just keep it to a minimum and be open to correction. Feeling reflections are not about getting it right, they are about trying to hear and understand.

Resources and Links

Helping social-emotional development

5 Things not to say

Journal of Developmental Psychology

What are Cognitive Distortions?
Surgeon General Advisory: Social Media and Youth M...