Validating Children’s Feelings

As a family therapist I witnessed many children experience incredible losses and crises which often left them feeling sad, frustrated, angry and hopeless.  I have also had children in my everyday life feel disappointed or mad because they didn’t get a treat they wanted or feel sad or rejected because they weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party. Regardless of the child or the situation, it is difficult to watch children deal with this range of “negative” feelings. Most parents want to protect children from feeling any pain. However, I must admit that I have learned that not only is it impossible to protect the children in my life from negative or painful feelings, it is often not as helpful as I would have hoped.

Years ago I had the honor of working with a very strong and resilient 5-year-old girl.  She had experienced incredible trauma in her life, compounded by her mother’s death. When I met her she was living in foster care and was beginning to feel safe enough to share the losses she had experienced in her very short life. She often became tearful as she shared her memories of her mother and expressed anger about her mother not being there for her. Her foster mother, who was a very caring and compassionate woman, would often try to soothe the child by offering explanations and words of comfort.  She would say things like, “Your mother is in heaven with the angels,” or “Your mother isn’t really gone, she is lives on in your heart.” The girl’s response?  “I don’t care – I want my mom!”

The foster mother’s attempts to comfort and remove pain had the opposite effect. What the girl wanted was comments that validated her feelings. Statements that reflected her feelings like, “You are sad because you miss your mom,” had much more of an impact than any attempts to protect her from her pain. When her feelings were accepted she would continue to share them and any acts of rage or yelling would cease.

We need to accept and allow children to express their full range of emotions. When we listen, we show children that their feelings are real and important. Accepting children’s feelings also doesn’t mean we have to accept every way their feelings are expressed.  Parents can validate children’s feelings without supporting negative behaviors that occur as a result, though this can be be quite tricky. As children’s behaviors escalate it is natural to want to redirect the negative behavior and “get the child under control.” What has worked for me is to first validate the feelings and then direct the behavior.  By doing this, the children in my life have felt heard and understood which has often resulted in a decrease in the negative behaviors.

No matter how hard it is to see a child upset or in pain, I have found that the best way to soothe and comfort is to accept how they feel.  Likewise I have found that the best way to respond to a happy child is to accept their joy and join in on their fun!

- Carolyn

Photo courtesy of damejoys.

16 responses to “Validating Children’s Feelings

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Even as adults we want to know that people understand why we are feeling a particular emotion. We don’t want generic answers and neither do kids. A great reminder, thx

  2. Great post! I especially appreciate you pointing out that the child felt safe enough to begin expressing true emotions and feelings. We often forget this piece in the moment and it’s a good reminder as we work to support the children in our care.

  3. It’s a peculiar thing – I have found that the more I am able to validate children’s feelings the more safe they feel to express them. The two concepts really go hand-in-hand. Once the child sees you as someone who understands, the more safe they feel and the more willing they are to share.

  4. I was just talking with a mom-friend today who is going through a divorce and trying to deal with both her own and her 5-year-old daughter’s emotions as they find a “new normal.” (I’ll pass this on to her – she’ll appreciate it….thank you!) Later it occurred to me that many of us adults don’t validate our own negative emotions very well – we’d much rather distract ourselves, deny the emotions we feel, or bury ourselves in activities that make us feel better without allowing ourselves to live in the pain long enough to acknowledge that it’s a reasonable response to the situation. (If a sad thing happens to you, it’s okay to feel sad!) It’s no wonder so few of us know how to respond to children’s negative emotions if we don’t know how to respond in a healthy way to our own.

  5. I think this is also very true of MOST people. I know it is for me. My sweet husband tries to fix it, I just want validation! ^_^ I think of times I’ve done this with my son and it does help more then trying to explain things to him.

  6. I agree with you Kathy and Jillian! Too many times people try to “fix” our feelings or placate us because its hard for them to respond to the emotion we express.

  7. This is a great reminder, thanks for sharing with such clarity.

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  9. Thanks. I work with children in foster care, and this is a great reminder. Many, many thanks!

  10. I think when it comes to feelings -we often go to our “heads” and try to fix the feeling. Feelings are generated from our hearts and therefore reguire a heart message verses a thought out analytical one. I recently talked to a friend who is struggling in dealing with a friend of hers who is dying from cancer. She became worried about how to respond and feared she would make it worse. My response to her was – respond from your heart, compassion is never misunderstood.

  11. This is a great post and an important message. When children are not validated, they grow up not believing or trusting their own feelings. This makes decision making and many other things difficult as adults. They often have an outside frame of reference and are full of self-doubt.

  12. Kathy I think you make a great point. Feelings are connected to our choices and actions – validating our children’s feelings can have an everlasting effect

  13. dont break or abandon a child ….somehow they remain broken throughout…their first love affair is with their parents…when that is violated,abused,broken…..you have a broken soul

  14. My parents did not validate feelings at all. Their own or ours. Emotions were best left in a different room. It’s important to validate a child’s feelings without trying to fix stuff for them. Kids needs to be heard.

  15. I agree that it is important to accept the feelings of our children and respond with compassion. This truly helps prepare our children for success in relationships and life.

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