We’ve all experienced frustration when someone minimizes our concerns or tunes us out. And most of us are guilty as well, perhaps more often than we realize. But when we do it to our kids—when we fail to hear them and validate their feelings—we are in danger of damaging one of the most important relationships of all.
What validation is . . .
Put simply, validation is the acknowledgement and acceptance of another’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences. It can be particularly effective with adolescents who are navigating the complicated road to adulthood. As parents, we want to know what our teenage children are thinking and doing, while their inclination, as they test new boundaries, may be to withhold their emotional struggles from us.
Validation techniques can help bridge that chasm by showing our children that we are listening to them without judgment, and that their feelings make sense. In turn, parental validation helps children manage their emotions, decreases conflict, and improves the parent-child relationship. It can also help build self-confidence and teach coping techniques they will rely on throughout their lives.
. . . And what it is not.
In order to understand what validation is, we must also clarify what it is not. The “no judgment” aspect alarms some parents and gives rise to the misconception that validation involves permissiveness and leniency. It does not. Validation is neither agreement with nor approval of what your child is saying. Nor is it encouragement, reassurance, or praise—other parenting tools that are helpful but distinct. And validation is most emphatically not excessive permissiveness or reinforcement of bad behavior.
Instead, it’s a parenting tool that helps show your child that you hear what he is really saying, and gives him the confidence to engage with you on an emotional level. For example, if your child is upset by his curfew, you can let him know that you understand how hard that restriction feels, especially when your rules are different from other parents’, and yet also hold to your limits. He may still be angry, but he may also be more likely to discuss his feelings in the future, lessening the likelihood of a larger argument. While he knows you understand and accept his feelings, he also realizes that the curfew stands.
The Six Levels of Validation
Validation takes practice. It will probably not feel natural at first, especially during a tense time when you and your child are under stress. Keep at it!
Here is a summary of the six levels of validation developed by Marsha Linehan (1993), the creator of Dialectical Behavior Theory. It is generally recommended that parents use the highest level of validation they can within the situation.
1. Be present. Stop what you’re doing, put down your iPhone, and give your child your undivided attention.
2. Reflect accurately. Repeat what you believe your child has said and is feeling.
3. Read minds. Guess how your child is feeling, and ask him if you are right.
4. Put it in context. Understand your child’s reactions in the context of his past experiences.
5. Convey your understanding. Let your child know that his reactions and feelings are normal, and that anyone would feel the same way in the situation.
6. Be radically genuine. Treat your child like an equal, perhaps by sharing a similar experience you have had.
Like any other parenting strategy, validation will become easier and more natural over time—and the rewards for your child and your family are lasting, and well worth the effort.