Building a bridge to your child through validation
Written by Mike Giresi,
in Section Featured Articles
If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the shortest difference between a parent and child is validation.
When we talk about validation, we're not talking about is enabling, excusing or allowing problematic behavior. What we are talking about is a combination of empathy, acknowledgement and compassion for what another person is thinking, feeling or experiencing.
At its root, validation isn’t about agreeing with what your child is saying or doing, it’s about finding something within yourself that taps into the same thing they’re feeling. Teens are often looking for an acknowledgement that their feelings are real and valid.
Feeling seen, heard, and not alone is vital to feeling safe enough to open up
When a person, and in particular a child or adolescent, feels seen, heard, accepted and not alone, it’s easier for them to understand and move past what happened or what they did, and focus on instead on the underlying thoughts and feelings. This is where growth, learning and healing happens.
If you’re struggling to meet your child on his terms in the fallout of problematic behavior, check out our article Healing with your teen through self-exploration to learn about the vital thing you can do as a parent to help your child feel seen and heard.
Problematic behaviors exhibited by teens—dishonesty, stealing, poor performance at school, aggression, isolation, defiance, and even violence—all stem from unresolved emotional pain. When teens hurt, when they suffer with shame, self-hatred, or self-judgement, and they feel helpless and hopeless, resulting in patterns of acting-out and acting-in on themselves.
We facilitate healing when we address the underlying causes, not the symptoms
Think of your child’s problematic behavior as a symptom of something much greater. If you react only to his acting out—to the symptom—the underlying emotional pain remains unaddressed. And receiving discipline, consequences or other negative attention can actually reinforce his shame and self-hatred; subsequent acting out will only get worse.
A teen who is struggling with with a mental or behavioral health issue, like anxiety or depression, substance use, or even problematic gaming, isn’t likely to voluntarily open up to you. In fact, a teen in crisis will probably demonstrate that crisis through explosions of anger, bouts of inconsolable sadness, or reclusiveness and stony silence.
As a parent, it hurts to know your child is suffering and in pain, and it’s a natural impulse to coax him to open up to you and go directly into problem-solving mode. We meet with families all the time caught in a cycle of parents trying to problem-solve for their children instead of just sitting with them in their pain and discomfort. As parents, the overwhelming instinct to problem solve comes naturally — but it can invalidate your child and can reinforce the dynamics of shame and self-criticism that are keeping him stuck — however unintentionally.
Brené Brown has some really impactful ideas about the differences between Empathy and Sympathy, and how to build healing connections with people you love.
So what you can do for your adolescent child to help him when he’s in crisis or acting out?
The answer is validation.
Remember at the beginning of this article we said that validation isn’t condoning bad behavior but rather building a bridge between a point of pain in your life and a point of pain in his life? And again, If you haven’t yet read our previous article, Healing with your teen through self-exploration, click the link to read it and then come back.
When you’re presented with a child in crisis, your most important first step is to take stock of your own thoughts and feelings about what’s happening, and separate these out from what your child is going through.
In doing this you can be mindful of your own bias so you don’t perceive your teenager’s words and actions through your own adult filter. Feeling triggered, tired, ]frustrated or otherwise overwhelmed by your own complex emotions make validating your child even more challenging, and it’s vital to be aware of your own situation before you react to his.
Validation nurtures your teen’s mental health, helping them feel safe, worthy and important, which are crucial for their self-self-esteem and identity building.
Is your child presently in crisis? It’s important to note that if your child is behaving in ways that are dangerous—putting themselves or others in real danger—your priority should be to first keep your child safe through whatever means necessary, setting aside validation for now.
There are four key steps to validating your child:
1. TAKE NOTE: Try to understand what’s happening inside your teen and how they’re making sense of their experience, rather than focusing on their behavior. Children unconsciously organize their lives around protecting themselves from what they fear, and we often lash out at things we fear. If he’s acting out at school it may because there’s something he’s afraid of at school. He may be lashing out because he’s being bullied, pressured, or victimized in some way.
2. LOOK WITHIN: Examine what’s going on with you while you’re sitting with your child—are you feeling triggered, frustrated, tired, sad, worried, anxious, annoyed? Being aware of your own emotions can help you slow down and observe rather than rush to react.
3. EXPLORE WITH OPENNESS: Try to investigate how he’s feeling in a non-threatening way by reflecting back what he’s said and asking open-ended and non-judgmental questions. When he tells you what happened, reflect it back to him to make sure you heard it right, and give him the chance to correct you if you got it wrong.
4. BE PRESENT: When the time comes to respond, there’s only one phrase that matters: “It must be really difficult that this is happening.” You’ll find your own words for this, but it’s a vital bridge. When spoken from the heart, it can immediately diffuse even the biggest emotions because it gives your child permission to feel vulnerable, and lets him know that you understand he’s struggling.
What your teen wants most is to feel seen and heard, not to be fixed.
This is what validation accomplishes. When parents only focus on their child’s behavior, he believes his parents don’t care how he feels. On the flip-side, when a parent acknowledges their teen’s feelings and struggle, he feels that he’s no longer alone, and that he has the support of someone he values.
There’s no manual for being a parent. We learn how to be parents in two ways: first, we learn from our own parents—for many of us this is a minefield of it’s own! And second, we learn how to be parents through whatever work we have done on ourselves in a therapeutic environment.
The families that come to Family First Adolescent Services have our support from the very first phone call. We’ll provide you with the tools, compassion, and resources you need to immediately begin your journey to healing. Is Family First Adolescent Services right for you and your family? Call us to find out (561) 328-7370.