I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was still small. The memory I am a bout to share happened definitely some years before my 10th birthday. I can’t remember exactly what had happened either or why I was upset, but I remember I was and I also remember that my inner turmoil had carried on for some days. By this point you must be wondering why I’ve chosen to tell a story which facts I do not seem to have in a straightforward manner. The answer is simple: because I remember how I felt.
Let´s go back to the story. As a result of my sadness, I spoke to one of the significant adults in my life about whatever it was that was occurring. Their answer -slight grunt included- went somewhere along the lines of “well, this can´t continue, something needs to be done and we need you to help us out with it”. I distinctly remember the tone of voice in which this was said to me and the expression on the person´s face, maybe the words weren’t exactly as I phrased them here, but I vividly remember the emotional tone of the whole interaction. One could argue the message in itself was good because after all, the adult in question was letting me know they were going to help me, but I remember feeling tense, worried and a little overwhelmed. I thought to myself “uh oh, this person is stressed and worried now and its because of me”. Having thought about this scene several times and years after, I was able to clarify something I was experiencing and didn’t quite know how to articulate at the time my foggy memory occurred: I felt as if there was a sense of urgency being conveyed to me, as if I need to “get well fast”, but no such words where actually used. It was as if there was no space for what I was feeling, and even though I know that this adult was well intentioned and that I mattered to them, this action-oriented problem-solving approach was short of a very crucial step that should have preceded it: emotional validation
What is emotional validation and why is it so important? Personal experiences always awaken emotions. Human existence cannot be understood without taking feelings into account and feelings are what allow us to connect with others. We validate someone emotionally when we convey to them that their experiences, emotions and thoughts are recognized, make sense and are accepted. It´s an act of true human connection and everyone needs to feel it on a regular basis throughout their lives. Validation expresses I see you, you matter, I understand or try to understand you and I´m here, all without using these words. If you think about it, feeling validated has a core importance for any human (regardless of their age) yet sadly, not much is said to parents about this fundamental parenting task. Validation is a primary emotional need, (like safety and to feel loved) and should be a right.
Validation is important for a numerous amount of reasons: It impacts the capability of naming, expressing and understanding emotions (when it comes to a person´s own self and others as well), it helps the child, teen (or adult) internalize the validating model which then grows into self-validation, it helps build self-esteem and also contributes to the development of the capability of self-regulating emotions while diminishing impulsive behaviours. In terms of immediate consequences, validation helps to “emotionally hold” the child, teen (or grown up) in distress providing emotional containment, while helping them to regulate their emotions and feel secure.
To better understand what emotional validation is and how to materialize it, we also have to comprehend its counterpart: emotional invalidation. When a person feels that his or her feelings, thoughts and/or experiences are frowned upon, judged, and/or minimized, it is safe to say that invalidation is present. We have all felt invalidated at one point or another in our lives, even if we didn’t know the formal term for it. Emotionally invalidating environments in childhood can have long-lasting effects. These effects manifest themselves in the adulthood of those who have lived immersed such environments. The vast array of research available on the matter has shown that repeated and systematic invalidation can cause difficulties in identifying, expressing and regulating emotions, emotional inhibition and depression. In the most extreme cases emotionally invalidating environments have contributed to the development of difunctional behavioural tendencies, such as resorting to impulsive harmful behaviours as a means to quickly alleviate a negative emotion
But, what does emotional invalidation look like exactly? In essence, invalidation occurs when the important adults in a child´s life aren’t attune with his/her needs and emotions. Furthermore, these adults respond to their children either by discounting or punishing the expression of such needs and emotions. Non-responsiveness is the first from of invalidation. if a child cries, soothing him or her is validating (either with words or actions) as opposed to labelling them as cry baby, for example, which conveys the non verbal message of: you shouldn’t be crying, it doesn’t make sense that you are feeling the way you are. If a child expresses a need, i.g, “I´m hungry”, responding to that need by giving choices of what he/she could have is validating, as opposed to saying: you can´t possibly be hungry, which would again convey the following non-verbal message: the sensation that you are experiencing in your body isn’t so. If the same thing is done in terms of feelings and an adult tells a child that he/she isn’t or shouldn´t be mad (when he/she actually is), the child slowly learns that his emotions are wrong and that they don’t make sense, which can later resort in an inability to discern emotional states and also a lack of trust his or her emotions as valid and expected reactions to certain events. Furthermore, if a family environment consistently fails in the task of paying attention to a child’s emotions, thoughts and bodily sessions, they might be inadvertently reinforcing emotional dysregulation. Why? Because a child might learn he only gets noticed and obtains what he might need form the environment, when his or her emotional expression escalates.
So, how can parents and other significant adults be emotionally validating towards their children? Marsha Linehan, developer of DBT therapy, composed a theory of levels of validation for therapist to use in their sessions. The same theory could be extrapolated and used by parents and caregivers. I will be using four of the six levels proposed by Linehan to give you examples on how to validate in a conscious manner.
Level one: Be present, be curious. Pay attention to what your child says and does when he/she communicates with you. Tune in when he/she communicates (verbally or not) an emotion. Making sustained eye contact; kneeling, bending or sitting so as to be closer to the child’s actual size and level; a gentle touch etc, are all non-verbal forms of communication that can be validating.
Level two: Reflect back. Be a mirror. Accurately translate into words what you observe and let your child know. The goal is to truly try to understand your child’s inner experience and not judge it. Paraphrase when they are slightly older: “Let me see if I understood you correctly, you said that…”
Level three: Reveal the unspoken. Essentially, at level three, if the adult has been paying close attention, he can articulate things that haven’t been explicitly said. For example, a child might be crying and complaining about something his or her brother did. He hasn’t named his emotion, but the significant adult could say something along the lines of: “That must have made you feel angry”. Linehan refers to this level as mind reading and in its more complex forms, in entails figuring out not only what a person feels but what they are thinking, wishing for…etc. You can always ask if you got things right or if you are correct after mind reading.
Level four: It´s a premise from which to function: All behaviour is either caused by an event or it´s a response to one. In that light, all behaviour is understandable. This one of my favourite levels as it helps us understand and have compassion. It does not mean that any behaviour will be approved or excused. For example, a child lies to his or her teacher about completing his homework. It´s understandable that the child is afraid of telling the truth out of fear of the consequences of doing so. The adult here could let the child know that he understands that fear was felt (level 3 validation or two if the child has explained that he was scared). The adult could go on to explain that when we are afraid, most animals (humans included) do things to try to protect themselves, but that these things aren’t always the wisest. Sometimes they just serve in the short term, but only make things worse in the long run. The adult in question could then proceed to a problem-solving approach and address what the child could do to correct the dysfunctional behaviour.
So, if you are a significant adult in a child´s life, If you are his parent, his caregiver, his uncle or aunt, his teacher or perhaps his older cousin, remember the profound impact emotional validation can have in that child’s emotional development. Whether you are having a simple conversation, a heart to heart or a serious talk about discipline, please don’t forget to validate.
Rocío Fernández Cosme