When I work with parents of teens, I notice they often express a desire to support their child in three primary ways: by making a behavior change, navigating a challenge, or connecting with them on a deeper level. While each family copes with its own unique challenges, I usually find myself first coaching parents on the importance of validation.
Now, when I use the “V” word with parents, I often hear concerns that validating their child will show agreement with negative thoughts or behaviors. Some parents also worry that validating releases control, sending the message that their teen is in charge. Other parents believe that validating emotions indicates that their child can act purely based on their feelings.
Such questions and concerns show the underlying complexity of validation. In reality, validating your child (or anyone, for that matter!) is a nuanced skill that takes intentionality and practice. Validation is challenging because it forces you to really step into another person’s pain, empathize and connect with them in that pain. This takes self awareness, emotional attunement and time, which we don’t always have.
According to Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT), a therapeutic model that works to “restore connection and promote resilience in family relationships,” validation is one of the first steps in building positive communication and behavior change. At its core, validation involves conveying a sense of understanding another’s emotional experience. It is not telling your child that they are right, that you agree with their thoughts or that they can do whatever they want based on their feelings. Validation says, “Hey, I see you. That must be really hard for you for a few different reasons. Let me get down in that hard feeling with you, show you that you’re not alone and that I’m in this with you.”
When we validate the feelings of teens (and human beings in general), it has a calming effect on our brains and bodies. As the founder of EFFT, Dr. Adele Lafrance explains, “Emotions go up like an elevator but the door to reason is on the ground floor.” According to this metaphor, validation is the operating system that brings an elevator from the top floor (i.e. an emotionally charged brain) to the ground floor or to a more regulated state. When our brains and bodies are more regulated, it is only then that we can communicate effectively and move forward with positive action.
So how can I start validating my teen, you may ask? Here are a few quick tips for validating your teen, adapted from EFFT emotion coaching:
- Make it authentic. Teens know when you’re being fake, so find a way to connect with their experience that truly resonates with you.
- Use statements like “No wonder you…” or “It makes sense that you…” to start in order to convey that you understand what your child is feeling.
- Give a few reasons why you think they might feel the way they do. This shows that you really “get it.”
So how does this actually work when you put it all together? Here’s an example of validation in action from my own life: I recently had a tough encounter with a family member and used validation to try to get on the same page. I said, “I can understand why you’re feeling angry with me because I haven’t called you recently, you’ve been coping with a lot of changes and stress, and because it must feel like you’re dealing with this stress all on your own.” It’s true that this validating statement didn’t magically solve our conflict; however, it did foster alignment so we were able to calmly and thoughtfully discuss how to move forward together.
Have more questions about validation? You can reach out to a TSG clinician for a parent coaching session to learn more and start practicing this important skill.