Validating Others

Little Yonah was with his mother in the store and was whining to her, “I’m so tired.  I’m hungry”.  What does the mother say?  Option one – we just got here and I told you to finish eating your lunch before leaving.  Now you will have to wait until we get home”.  Option two – “Stop that whining.  You’re embarrassing me in front of all these people”.  Option three – “there’s nothing I can do about it now but I’m sorry you are tired and hungry.”  Option four – “I can see how you’re tired and hungry.  I’m sorry that you are feeling this way.  What would you like right now?”

A parent’s response to a child leaves the child wondering about their own sense of self and their relationship with the parent.  Little Yonah could question either himself or his parent.  On one hand, if my parent is always right then maybe I’m not really hungry and my tummy is growling because of my imagination.  Otherwise I really am hungry but it’s not important to my mother.  Why not?  What did I do wrong?  Now the object changes from the child’s need and feelings to the child questioning himself and his parent.  On the other hand, the child knows the parent is wrong and now doubts the parent’s understanding of him and feels the parent doesn’t understand him at all.

Another example is Ellen, who tells her husband that she has such a terrible headache.  One response could be, “why don’t you take this pill to make you feel better?”  The other response, which would be more empathetic would be, “Oh, Ellen, it’s so hard to get anything done when you have a headache … it’s as though the whole you is out of sorts, but your mind is working fine and you want to do things, you just feel like you’re weighed down.”   The first response reflects hearing the person and trying to solve their problem while the second response shows empathy and understanding and shows reflection of the feelings that made Ellen feel comforted.

The question to ask oneself is whether your response is reactive or reflective.  To react to someone is to try to give them the answer, resolve a problem or make excuses.  To reflect on what the other person said clearly shows your understanding and represents spending some time in thinking about the person, his issue and his or her feelings caused by the issue.

Validating others is not always easy.  If we don’t validate the other person, we end up either trying to resolve their problems for them or actually invalidate what they are feeling.  To tell a tired child he’s not tired or a hungry child he’s not hungry is as invalidating as telling your spouse that he’s not really tired, hungry, too warm or any other aspect of how they’re feeling.  According to Aliza Terris, MSW., a founding partner in Guiding Connection in Toronto, Ontario specializing in building relationships and creating direction in dating, “Validation is all about parking your own reactions and judgments temporarily and instead choosing to hear what is being said by the other from a place of curiosity.  It is truly trying to get into the other person’s mind and appreciate that whatever they are sharing with you means something to them….even if it means less or nothing at all to you.  Just the fact that someone is experiencing an issue makes it valid and you don’t need to justify it or get agreement about whether it’s an issue or not. Validation is not about agreement; it’s only about trying to understand how what is being said might make sense to you from their perspective.  It is simply saying, “even though your reality, your view, the way you think about this is different from me, it is as valid as my reality, my view, the way I think, and I honour it”.  Again, to validate someone, you must crawl into the other’s head and look out at the world through their eyes”.

Like learning a new language, switching gears from reacting to your children’s expressions to the new method of reflecting their inner feelings will take some time. In the beginning, you may feel awkward with this manner of conversation, yet over time, it will become a natural and habitual way of response.  When a child hears his emotions reflected back to him, he is able to accept, trust and respect his own feelings. That is the essence of confidence. When a child has the ability to base ideas and decisions upon his thoughts and feelings, he is self-aware and possesses a healthy level of self-esteem.  Self-esteem is built on validation.  To ensure your child’s sense of worth, reflect upon his feelings, send positive, caring messages and validate his or her feelings.  Don’t be dismissive of children’s wants and needs but rather validate their sense of self in making their requests to an adult.  To do this, children often need what I call emotional coaching.  They need help in getting their thoughts and feelings adequately communicated to the adults.  Likewise, adults need to learn how to coach their children in their emotional health.

The Talaris Research Institute in Washington State specializes in transferring knowledge of early learning and the importance of parenting in the first years of life.  They teach five steps in emotional coaching including:  step one: emotional awareness; step two: recognizing emotions; step three: listening emphatically; step four: labeling emotions; step five: setting limits.  I will share some of their ideas with my readers.

Step one:  Emotional awareness refers to getting in tune with your child’s emotions.  To discover what a child is feeling at various times takes a little work—like looking at a child’s body language, listening for hints in a child’s tone of voice,and searching for clues in a child’s face. It also means increasing our awareness of our own emotions along with those of a child, including those feelings that are harder to identify (like disappointment, hurt feelings, or worry).  Whether these emotions are easy to spot or not, they should not be taken for granted.  Becoming aware of a child’s emotions—especially before they escalate out of control—can benefit everyone.  Being aware of your child’s feelings and subsequently your own feelings plays a huge role towards the child becoming a happy, healthy and well adjusted individual.

Step two:  Recognizing emotions includes building connections through giggles and tears.  Most of us are very limited in our ability to label a variety of emotions.  As such we are limited in our ability to teach a multitude of emotions to our children.  Furthermore, we are often limited in understanding the emotions of others.  When our children have emotional moments, they usually turn to their caring adult for help in understanding what is going on.  The responses they receive can have a large effect on the way they learn to deal with feelings.  These situations afford us an opportunity to build a deeper and more trusting relationship as well as a time to teach them how to deal with the wonderful world of human feelings.  

These benefits also appear to have long-lasting effects. Children who develop strong emotional health may be better prepared to deal with difficult events and relationships as teenagers and adults. Emotionally intelligent children are better able to adapt to the different social situations they experience as they get older.

Step three:  Listening emphatically is listening with your heart and your head.  Explanations and logic might work for adults, but children look to parents and caregivers for something else when they feel swept away by an emotion—comfort and understanding.  Children are looking for empathy.  Without understanding the child’s perspective we cannot respond in an empathetic manner.  That is, we have to respond as if we are in the child’s head.  Listening with empathy and validating a child’s feelings—whether happy or sad—are two of the most important steps to take to help children learn to deal successfully with the wonderful world of emotions.  Not only will listening with empathy help comfort the child, but research suggests (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven,1997) it will also help improve her ability to soothe herself during times of trouble, which could have powerful and long-lasting benefits.  A child’s ability to delight in the happy times, and recover quickly from the bad ones, is a key part of good emotional health, according to Dr. John Gottman.

In his research on the emotional environment of families, Dr. Gottman found that children who have parents responding to their emotions with empathy and patience and are emotion-coaching parents:

  • are more self-confident 
  • do better in school 
  • have fewer behavioural problems 
  • get along better with friends and others 
  • have fewer infectious illnesses 
  • can weather parents’ conflict better 

Strong emotional health, in turn, makes them better prepared to deal with difficult events later in life. 

Step four: Labeling emotions is being able to tell someone how you feel and actively hearing how someone else feels.  How do you help others learn to cope with emotions in a way that promotes both mental and physical health? The answer can be as simple as giving feelings a name.  Caregivers who tell a child with tears streaming down her cheek,  “You are feeling sad now, aren’t you?” or a child in the midst of a foot-stomping tantrum, “I can see you are feeling angry,” perform an important task. Those who help teach their children to name their emotions give them a valuable, lifelong skill.

Putting a name to the emotion not only helps children make sense of what they are feeling.  Research studies suggest that it also helps calm their nervous systems and helps them recover faster from upsetting situations. 

Step five:  Setting limits is solving problems together.  The challenge for parents is to accept and value their children’s emotions as they set limits on inappropriate behavior. The next step is to help children learn to successfully puzzle their way through problems, both big and small, which are a normal part of growing up.  Setting limits is the first step in an entire problem solving strategy, according to Dr. Gottman.  Once you have made it clear what’s OK and what’s not OK—and why—you should help your children identify, evaluate and choose effective solutions to their problems.  As you set boundaries and teach children positive ways of behaving, you are teaching your children the values of your family and culture.

As learned from the information above, not validating a child can have serious consequences.  Aliza Terris, MSW from Guiding Connection, notes that there are consequences of not validating someone and the closer the relationship we have with the person with whom we are invalidating, the more potential for damage done to them.  She gives an example of a parent and a young child where the parent repeatedly does not validate the child who shares an emotional hurt.  One must consider that the child will slowly but surely close down their natural emotional healing process.  “A natural process of healing oneself from an emotional hurt, for children and for an adult is the opportunity to direct the hurt feelings from the inside, where it hurts so much, to the outside, where it can then be discarded.  Words, the vehicle for expressing the feelings of the heart, are most commonly directed to other people to hear, especially as children.  An invalidating response such as “come now, there’s nothing to cry about or be afraid of,” teaches a child that it is not acceptable to express their painful feelings. 

In any relationship the goal is to establish a connection between the two individuals in the relationship, be it parent/child, husband/wife, employer/employee, etc.  Sharing of oneself facilitates the development of this connection.  People are wired such that they share only when they consider themselves to be safe in doing so.  Validation is a tool that can and should be used in all relationships in order to create safety.  People feel safer and more connected when we listen to them without interrupting, giving advice or trying to fix it.  Validating another person builds the connection and strengthens the bond.

Whether we are communicating with children or other adults, the need to understand their perspective, their point of view remains critical.  It is through this means of communication of validation that we develop strong and meaningful relationships in ourselves and our children.

Published by regesh2019

We, at Regesh, have been providing counseling programs for children, youth, individuals and families for the past 38 years. We utilize a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to provide a stable foundation that addresses our current & future client's needs and abilities to become more healthy and balanced.

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