By Dr Lisa Smith
The Power of Validation in Positive Parenting
Validation is one of the core foundations of the Compass Psychology 6 week Positive Parenting Course. When we ran this course in Autumn last year our parents expressed how helpful it had been to learn about validation. And how learning to respond in this way helped them to connect and understand their children better.
So, what is validation?
Validation begins with an understanding that for kids, all behaviour is communication. Whether it is a tantrum in a shop about not getting a toy they want, getting angry and hitting out at a sibling, or a meltdown over a favourite stick being left in the park, it is our job as parents to hold space and be curious about what might be going on underneath the surface during these times.
However, in practice this is tough! And in these moments we have all felt the pressure to tell our children “stop crying”,“shush” or “don’t make such a big deal it’s nothing”. But here’s the thing. In moments like these children are not trying to make life difficult or give their parents a hard time on purpose. Instead, they’re feeling a big emotion and they’re not completely sure how to express it. It is our role as parents to help our children recognise and manage big feelings and this starts with validation.
- Validating your child’s feelings means acknowledging how your child is feeling in the moment — whether it’s happy, sad, angry, or some other big emotion — without judgement, expectation, or comment on what they “should” be feeling instead.
- Validating is not fixing, correcting, teaching a lesson, or providing advice. It is about being with your child’s experience, whatever it is, in the moment.
- Validating your child’s feelings involves understanding the situation from their point of view and empathising with them, in the moment, about what they have experienced.
- Responding to children with validation creates a sense of emotional safety by helping them to feel understood. The impact of being understood is that it will encourage a sense of connection which can in turn lessen the intensity of the emotional experience in the moment.
Parenting validation in action
The first step to parenting with validation is being aware of our own responses. Seeing our kids struggle with big feelings is hard. We feel what they feel right!
So before you respond to your child, take a pause, notice how you feel, label it and take a deep breath. We need to hold compassion and validate our own feelings first so we can hold the space to validate and understand our children’s experiences. Once you are calm and level-headed, try to look at the situation from your child’s perspective.
It is also important to remember not to take your child’s emotions personally. This isn’t about you, even if they scream “I hate you!” This is about them: Their big feelings and still-developing brain. Children are learning and it is important to acknowledge that they will make mistakes and get things wrong. These are opportunities to support children to learn and validation plays a key role in this process.
Lets take a look at a few examples of what validation looks like in practice:
- Be curious about emotions, create space for emotions and reflect them, mirroring your child’s tone. “I wonder if you are a little worried about going to daycare today” or “It seems like you are feeling so mad!”
- When your child is describing a problem to you, repeat back to them what you’ve heard: “I hear you loud and clear. You are really fed up with your sister going into your room and taking your games”. Follow this with a check in to see if you have understood it right.
- When your child is expressing anger towards you, resist the urge to challenge the behaviour in the moment. Instead, acknowledge the feelings and invite them to tell you what they are upset about. Bear in mind that your child may need space to calm before they talk about what is going on.“You must be so upset to talk to me that way, Sarah. We can make this better. Let’s start over.” There will be a chance to challenge the behaviour at a later time.
- When you are unsure what your child is feeling or if your child gets angry when you “label” their emotions, you can try to use a more general word like “upset” or “big feelings”: “I hear how upset you are about this” or “I can see you are having some big feelings about this”.
- Noticing and describing what your child is physically expressing can help them to feel seen and heard, and can either help you name emotions or intentionally avoid it: “I see you’re moving around a lot. You look worried.” Or “I can see that your arms are crossed, and your brows are tight, like this. I wonder what’s going on?”
- Acknowledge your child’s perspective. “You wish that you could have had a lolly after dinner” or“This isn’t what you wanted….”
- When your child is crying, words can be a distraction. Use them sparingly, to create safety and welcome the emotion: “We all need to cry sometimes, its Ok. I’m here. You’re safe.”
If there is one thing that you take away from positive parenting, it’s – when in doubt validate.
It is important to note that there is no one size fits all approach to using validation in parenting. All children and parents are different and using this approach takes time and practice to find what works best within your family.
Holding space for validation is a complex process and as parents it is important to acknowledge that we cannot get it right every single time, we are human after all! Parenting is about embracing being good enough and holding compassion for ourselves and our kids when we inevitably make mistakes. And in the words of Maya Angelou:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”
If you want to find out more about validation in positive parenting take a look at the new Compass Psychology 6 session Positive Parenting Course here.
Dr Lisa Smith trained in Clinical Psychology at University College in the UK. She is passionate about parenting work and have extensive experience of working with parents of children and young people within clinical and educational settings.