Advice for making sure your children feel heard and respected
By Dr. Vicky Bouche, pediatric psychologist at CHOC
There are a lot of good ways to validate others and there are also some things we want to avoid. However, something I want to highlight is that we are all different in the way we want to be supported and validated by others.
So, if you are searching to improve your relationship with your child, I highly recommend reaching out and asking them how you can support and validate them.
Here’s an example of how to start that conversation: “Hey, I am working on better listening and understanding your thoughts and feelings. I’ve been reading this article about how to validate others. Is there a specific way you like to be supported when you are struggling? Is there a better way I can respond when you share your problems with me?”
6 steps for parents: How to validate your child or teen’s feelings
Your child may or may not already know what is helpful for them. If they don’t, here is what I recommend:
Step 1: Actively listen.
Make time to be fully present in the conversation. This will look different for everyone, but here are a few suggestions: work on making good eye contact, nodding and following along with other non-verbal cues, setting aside distractions for now (bye, buzzing phone!), and asking open-ended questions.
For example, try asking: “What’s been going on? What are you struggling with? Tell me more. How are you feeling?”
Step 2: Be mindful of your reactions.
Notice how you feel in those moments. Is it hard for you to hear your child struggle with problems? Do you try to make jokes to help yourself feel better? Do you react by sighing or rolling your eyes? A lot of people also jump straight to problem-solving.
Your child is struggling, so you start giving them suggestions (e.g., did you sleep enough last night? Did you eat enough? Maybe you’re spending too much time on your phone?). However, we probably don’t know enough about the situation to suggest things yet and our loved one may just want to vent.
Also, we sometimes may say things to try to help our child feel better (e.g., “maybe this is for the best,” “don’t worry about it,” “it’s going to be okay”) which end up feeling invalidating. Try to notice if you have the tendency to jump toward problem-solving or reassurance instead of listening to your loved one.
Step 3: Try to read between the lines.
Try to understand what your child is feeling and look for a word that describes the feeling.
If someone says, “I am being bullied at school and it sucks,” think about what emotions they might be feeling.
They might feel sad, angry, stressed, or overwhelmed.
Step 4: Reflect your child’s feelings back to them without judgment.
The goal is to show your child we understand and that their feelings are valid. These are a few simple phrases we can use that will help our loved one know we are trying to understand them:
- “It sounds like you are having a tough time right now.”
- “That sounds really difficult.”
- “It makes a lot of sense that you are feeling upset.”
- “Anyone going through what you are going through would feel that way.”
What about validating ourselves? This is simple to say, but harder to believe.
Try: “I have a right to feel this way.”
If you are tempted to add in a “but,” think about what your kindest friend would tell you instead.
Step 5: Take perspective.
Try to understand why your child’s feelings, thoughts, or behaviors make sense given the situation or their history. You do not have to agree with what they are saying or with the situation to do this.
Step 6: Take your child’s feelings seriously.
Try to show, in your response, that you are taking your child seriously with your words and your behavior. Like we discussed before, reflecting on how they are feeling can be a great start (e.g., “That sounds awful”).
You may also want to ask your loved one what they need: “What can I do to help right now? Do you want me to listen or to help you problem-solve?”
If someone is crying, give them a tissue. If they like hugs, give them a hug. Explore with your child ways that you can support them. Some of my favorite and simplest ways my family has supported me when I was struggling was giving me a special written note about how much they cared about me, a care package (when I lived far away), or spending time with me (a special family meal, going on a walk).
Also, consider that in every culture, support and acceptance may look different.
Why should we validate our children?
That’s the big question: Why is it so important to validate our children? There are several reasons.
First and foremost, validation is a way of telling another person that their feelings, thoughts, and actions make sense and are acceptable. Validating others can help improve our relationships with our family members. By validating our youth (and ourselves), we help our children feel safe and comfortable sharing their experiences with us.
Secondly, validation is a way of telling our family members (and others!) that we support them; it gives our youth the opportunity to explore and manage their emotions. By validating our youth, we can build empathy and better understand each other’s perspectives. Validation shows that we are listening, that we understand, that we are not there to judge and that we care about them.
Finally, validation can help all parties feel heard and understood during a disagreement, which helps deescalate conflict! Here is an important note: validating our children does not mean that we agree with what they are feeling, thinking or doing. It just means that we understand where they are coming from.
Let’s practice our validation steps
Validation is easy to talk about and can be harder to use, especially if things are already a little rocky within your relationship. The good news is that practice makes us better. It takes a lot of practice and communication to figure out how to validate others (and ourselves).
So, here is one example of a conversation I’ve had recently:
My niece recently let me know she has been struggling at school. During this conversation, I am working on active listening. I am nodding, making good eye contact, and trying to ask a few open-ended questions. When she starts crying, I find some tissues. In my head, I am also working on taking perspective. We are a week or two from her finals period (so that’s stressful!) and she has been having some other issues with friends.
First, I try to reflect on the feelings she’s experiencing and then see how she wants to be supported. I say:
“That sounds so stressful! Especially with finals coming up and everything else you have been through these last few weeks. I think anyone in your shoes would be feeling overwhelmed right now. How can I help you? Would you prefer that I listen to what you are going through or offer solutions?”
She tells me she’d like me to just listen, and she goes on to tell me some other reasons why this situation is stressful for her.
For some of us, that conversation might feel frustrating. It might feel like we didn’t make any progress. My niece is still struggling at school, and we didn’t come up with any solutions. However, my niece is learning that I am a safe person to talk to and that I am here to listen when she needs help. By giving her the chance to talk through her problems, she gains a better understanding of herself and her emotions.
Here is another, very important example I want us to go through: the moment when our loved one says something we really don’t agree with. For example, I hear these comments a lot from teenagers: ”I am ugly” or “You hate me.”
Remember, we do not need to agree with the statements to validate someone’s feelings. Our goal is to try to take perspective (step 5), read between the lines (step 3), reflect the person’s feelings back to them without judgment (step 4), and take their experience seriously (step 6).
When your teenager says those statements, they might feel angry, upset, or anxious. We can tell them:
“I hear you; it sounds like you are struggling with your self-esteem right now” or “It must feel awful to feel like I hate you; what makes you feel that way?”
Try to take some of those validating steps and resist the temptation to brush away their statements or solve them (e.g., “You’re not ugly; “I don’t hate you.”).
Validating your kids can be hard, and that’s OK!
I hope this article has given you a chance to better understand what validation is, how to do it, and why it is so important. I mentioned it before, and I will repeat it now: it can be very hard to validate our youth in a way that is nonjudgmental and helps them feel accepted. It takes a lot of practice.
Here is my challenge and homework for you: reach out to your children or family members and ask them how they like to be supported and accepted by you. Let them know you are working on validating and supporting them. If you have the courage, ask them what responses or reactions you have given in the past that have been helpful and unhelpful.
Of course, if you have read about and tried a variety of validation techniques but continue to struggle with communicating with your children (or validating yourself), consider reaching out for help from a mental health professional.
Good luck on your validation journey!
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.