Winter has arrived! We have spent the last several months surviving, reacting, adjusting, re-adjusting, and working to make sense of some of the most stressful personal, community, national, and global times we have ever experienced. We are not always feeling prepared for more of the same as we begin winter. With each day, however, we are moving through it. Some days end with a sense of accomplishment, while others with a sense of utter defeat. As a child and family therapist in Washington, DC and Maryland, I am also experiencing the exhaustion alongside those I work to support. It has become clear to me that as emotional reactions arise between loved ones, we benefit from having a vehicle in which to travel toward stress reduction and resolution.
As both a parent and therapist, I have relied on the skill of validation to be the vehicle I drive towards problem solving with loved ones. Validation means to recognize or affirm that a person’s feelings or opinions are worthwhile. While the concept of validation is widely accepted, there are a myriad of words and phrases that a person may use to attempt to validate. I have found much benefit from practicing validation as it is described in Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (Adelle Larfance, Katherine Henderson, & Shari Mayman). This model of validation is informed by the work of John Gottman’s Emotion Coaching. In their work, Lafrance, Henderson, and Mayman share that using validation activates the chemistry in the brain that leads to stronger connections between the brain regions that regulate emotions. This alone is a way to calm before we problem solve.
Here, I’d like to share a few guideposts for using validation as a vehicle towards resolving difficulties that arise with loved ones.
- Validation does not require you to personally agree with your loved one, only to imagine why they may feel the way they feel.
- Validation does not negate your own emotions or perspective. On the contrary, many report that the experience of meaningfully validating a loved one’s emotions somehow de-escalates their own intensity of emotions. The act of validation is healing for all parties involved.
- Verbalizing the reasons why it makes sense for your loved one to feel the way they feel is key. A helpful way to remember this is by remembering the following: Exchange the word “but” for “because”. Example: Your loved ones tells you that they feel frustrated. Rather than: “I understand why you’re frustrated, but you’ll get to try it another time.” Try it like this: “It makes sense that you’re frustrated because you really tried so hard and because you were hoping to do well the first time.”
Dr. Adele Lafrance writes that validation is most effective when it involves at least three “becauses”. Communicating meaningful understanding through validation will have a calming effect for your loved one.
- First, Meaningful Validation; then reassurance and problem solving
In light of disagreements surrounding how to handle the current pandemic, this example may seem relevant:
Loved one: “I am so upset and angry that we won’t even see you during the holidays.”
Rather than: “I know you’re upset. I am too. We’ll get through it, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. At least we can FaceTime.”
Try a Validation Response: “I don’t blame you for being upset and angry because we haven’t seen each other in a year, because being together during the holidays brings us such happiness, and because we don’t know when we’ll see each other next.”
We often respond to emotional distress by reassuring, pushing our loved one to consider “the bright side”, or problem solving. While these supportive efforts are not incorrect, they are simply ineffective without meaningful validation offered first. Validation is a vehicle that can provide you the smoothest ride to problem solving.
For further information on developing the skill of validation, consider viewing this video https://youtu.be/IQhXAQMt-FU by clinician Natasha Files of Mental Health Foundations. https://youtu.be/IQhXAQMt-FU