Rejection of self begins at a very young age. When children receive the message that they are unacceptable, especially from caregivers- the people they expect to love them the most, a feeling of self-contempt beings to take root. The child begins to perceive him or herself in the same way that they believe others perceive them. This is particularly damaging if the rejecting comes from a parent.
A feeling of self-contempt often leads to a variety of self-destructive behaviors. Studies suggest that twenty percent of teens and young adults engage in self-injury at some point to relieve negative emotions that they have not been able to express in healthier ways.
“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.” –Author John Powell
What can we do to instill a healthy sense of self within our children? How can we reduce the risk that our children will resort to self-injurious behaviors to cope with their emotions? How can we teach them to believe in themselves so that they are not continually seeking outside validation as they grow? How do we teach them that they are worthy and lovable?
One of the most important things that we can do is to validate their feelings.
What validation is:
- Accepting your own or another’s feelings as valid, legitimate, and real.
What validation is not:
Agreeing with opinions that differ from your own.
Accepting inappropriate behaviors.
Rejecting, ignoring, and judging feelings as good, bad, stupid, or ridiculous. (This invalidation creates self-doubt.)
Why Validate Your Child’s Feelings?
- Leads to better communication: Your child will share more of their inner world with you.
- Less resentment and emotional blow ups: When a child is angry or hurt and they do not feel safe enough to share their feelings with you, these emotions will not go away. They will intensify and reappear in destructive ways.
- Your child is more likely to feel accepted, nurtured, and understood.
- Validation promotes better mental health. It reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, poor emotional regulation, and self-injurious behaviors.
- Validation teaches a child to trust their own feelings. If you acknowledge your child’s feelings and accept them as real, your child grows up trusting their own emotions. An individual’s ability to trust their own feelings is extremely important as they enter into adult relationships. Our feelings signal us. They let us know when something feels right for us and when something is wrong. Our emotions tell us that our boundaries have been crossed. Many people who stay in abusive relationships dismiss their own feelings, and believe the abuser when the abuse is denied or minimized.
- Validation promotes a well-balanced view-point.
- Validation is connected to higher self-esteem.
- Validation promotes a greater sense of self. The child will grow up being able to better think for themselves without always having to defer to the opinion of others.
- Validation decreases pain. Painful feelings that are expressed and validated often decrease in intensity.
- Children who are validated learn how to validate themselves.
How to Validate a Child’s Emotions
- Listen and repeat back what you heard.
- Ask questions.
- Shake your head yes to show that you are listening.
- Allow the child to express their emotions in an appropriate way without fear of punishment.
- Educate children on the difference between feelings and behaviors. They may feel what they feel, but they may not throw the dishes across the room without receiving a consequence.
- Use a calm tone of voice without sounding angry or defensive.
- Pay attention to your body language. (Your angry body language may shut a kid up- but their feelings will fester.)
- Show that you are interested by staying quiet and paying attention to what is being said.
- Turn off the television or computer and give your child your undivided attention.
Words that Validate
- I didn’t know that you felt that way.
- I am glad that you shared this with me.
- I am so sorry that you feel that way.
- I see it differently, but I am glad that you are sharing how you feel.
- I can see that you are really angry.
- It is alright to be angry with your sister, but you may not hit her. (This differentiates feeling from behavior)
- I understand that you are mad, but you may not_________. (a behavior)
- I can see how hurt you are.
- I hear you saying ______________. Is that correct?
- I can see this really bother you.
Words that Invalidate
- You don’t really feel that way.
- You shouldn’t feel that way. (Child’s thinking, but I do. Is something wrong with me?)
- Your not hurt.
- That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.
- That should not have hurt your feelings.
- You are ridiculous.
- That shouldn’t scare you.
Three opportunities to validate: Changing invalidating remarks into validations
- Your child sees a spider. You are not scared, but your child is full of fear. Recognize your child’s feelings as real. Instead of saying, That shouldn’t scare you, try this- I can see that you are scared, let me help you. Take this opportunity to validate and educate.
- Your son says that he hates his sister. Instead of saying, You shouldn’t feel that way, try this- I can see that you are really angry. What is going on? What happened? Lets talk about the difference between anger and hate.
- Your daughter yells that she is angry with you. Instead of becoming defensive and yelling back, try telling her that it is okay to be angry with you, but it is not okay for her to raise her voice to you. Then calmly listen to what has made her angry. Really listen in a non-defensive way. Remember that you do not have to agree with her perspective to validate her feelings.
Remember that our children are separate from us, and we cannot expect them to view the world in exactly the same way that we do. They will perceive situations in their own way, and when their negative emotions are not expressed, they will not go away. We need to take the time to listen and acknowledge, even when we disagree or are simply looking through a different lens.
“When I repress my emotions, my stomach keeps score.” – Author John Powell
This post was written by Kristin Barton Cuthriell, MEd, MSW, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Snowball Effect: How to Build Positive Momentum in Your Life. To find out more about The Snowball Effect and to check out the book’s Amazon reviews, click here.