How to Teach Emotional Validation to Children
A couple months ago, I had the privilege of speaking about Redefining Positive at the Beaman Memorial Public Library in West Boylston, MA. I was thrilled to have such a great turnout, and so many insightful questions. One question that stood out to me was, “How would you apply the concepts in your book to children?” This audience member pointed out that children tend to be more egocentric and less interested in the feelings of others. I gave an answer that was a bit vague, as I was still unsure of the answer myself. Now that I’ve had more time to think about the question, I’d like to expand on how to teach validation to children.
The best advice I can give for teaching validation to children is to teach it like anything else. We teach children from a young age how to be polite, how to respect others, and how to be kind and considerate. We teach children how to share and take turns. We teach them responsibility. Validation is not any more difficult than anything else that we teach children. It may feel that way because it’s new to us – because it’s not something that we were taught as children. Here is a simple explanation:
“Valid” means that something is real. To validate someone means to say that what they tell you is real, that how they feel about it is real, and that their feelings are okay. Here is an example:
Billy says he’s afraid to go down the big slide. What could we say to Billy that validates his feelings?
Validating responses would be things like, “It’s okay to be scared,” “I was scared the first time I went down that slide too!” and respecting Billy’s choice about whether he tries the slide or not.
Invalidating responses would be things like, “It’ll be fine,” “There’s nothing to be scared of,” “My little sister goes down the slide and she’s younger than you!” and anything that tells Billy that it’s not okay for him to be afraid.
Explain to the kids that “validating” is not the same as “nice.” It’s possible to be nice without being validating.
Explain also that validating is the first step we should take, but it doesn’t have to be the only step. After telling Billy that it’s okay to be scared, it might be a good time to cheer him on with something like, “You can do it!” if he wants to try the slide.
Practice this with different examples and different emotions – try validating someone being scared, angry, and sad. Ask kids to think of validating responses. Or give some validating and invalidating responses and ask kids to identify which responses are validating and which ones are invalidating. Be sure to include some invalidating responses that still sound friendly and nice, to help kids recognize that invalidation is not always blatantly mean.
In addition to the examples above, teach validation by modeling it. Ask children how they’re feeling. When a child expresses a certain emotion, validate that emotion. Something like, “I’m sorry you couldn’t play with your friend yesterday. It’s okay to be angry that you didn’t get to do what you wanted,” as opposed to, “It’s just one day,” “That’s not worth getting upset about,” or anything that tries to downplay how they feel.
Model validation when you help children work out conflicts. If one child is invalidating another child, such as putting them down for crying or for being scared or upset, let them know that everyone’s feelings are valid. You could say something like, “It’s okay for your sister to cry. What happened upset her, and it’s okay for her to be upset, even if you’re not upset.”
Look for opportunities to validate children’s feelings, and to let them know that it’s okay for people to feel the way that they feel. Teach validation the same way that you would teach anything else.
A couple of audience members brought up the fact that some people just don’t seem to care about other people’s feelings. And they’re right – every single person won’t grow up to be validating just because they’re taught to be validating. But a lot more people would probably be significantly more validating if they were taught from a young age.
Imagine that someone went up to you and said, “You have an ugly haircut!” You could reasonably assume that most people would agree that this was wrong. If you told people, they may be angry on your behalf, they may say how not-okay this person’s behavior was, or they may offer you words of encouragement. Even though the person who made the comment was being rude to you, most people would agree that they were being rude and would support you.
Now, imagine that instead of the haircut comment, someone said to you, “You need to stop whining and suck it up,” or “Aren’t you over that by now?” or “Stop complaining about your troubles and think positively.” In these cases, you probably wouldn’t be so sure that everyone else you talked to would take your side and agree that these statements are not okay, the same way they would with the ugly haircut remark. Because unlike being polite and kind, most of us didn’t learn validation as children. Validation is not integrated into our moral systems, to the point that we automatically come to someone’s defense when they are being invalidated. But if it were ingrained at a young age, if kids heard, “Let’s all be validating!” as often as they heard “Take turns!” or “Be nice!” or “Say ‘thank you!’” then I could easily imagine living in a culture where we would know that we’d have the support of our friends – and of most people around us – whenever someone invalidated our feelings.
Additionally, when we learned to treat other kids with kindness and respect, that also taught us that we deserved to be treated with kindness and respect. I can remember many times in elementary school when kids would run and tell a teacher that another kid had called them a name or was making fun of them. They understood that the kids who were picking on them were doing something wrong. But what do you do when someone invalidates you in a way that’s not outright mean? What if someone tells you, “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad!” or “That’s nothing to be upset about!” I always found comments like this to be the hardest to deal with because, while I knew that they made me angry, I couldn’t explain why. Comments like this didn’t fall into the categories of bullying, teasing, or anything that I had learned was wrong. Having the words to explain your experience is an important part of validating yourself. If someone says, “You have an ugly haircut!” you recognize that that’s mean, that the person is doing something wrong. And just having that knowledge, just being able to tell yourself that the other person is in the wrong, makes it easier for you to feel okay about yourself and not internalize what they said.
But when it comes to invalidation, most of us grew up not having the words to explain it. I always knew that I wasn’t okay with people telling me how to feel, or that things weren’t as bad as I said they were, but it took me a long time to figure out how to explain that. I was in my third year of college when I finally stumbled upon the concept of emotional validation. If you have the words to explain what you’re experiencing, if you can say to yourself, “That person is being invalidating,” as easily as you would say, “That person is being rude,” you’re less likely to internalize the invalidation and more likely to maintain that your own experience is real. Think about it: If someone says, “You have an ugly haircut!” and you think to yourself, That’s mean! That person is bullying me. you’re less likely to think, “I guess I must actually have an ugly haircut,” than you would if you had never learned that bullying exists and that it’s wrong. Likewise, if someone says, “You’re overreacting. You need to suck it up and pull yourself together!” and you think to yourself, That person is invalidating me. My situation is every bit as bad as what I’ve expressed, my feelings are valid, and it’s legitimate for me to need emotional support, you’re much less likely to internalize what they said and think, “They’re right, I shouldn’t be feeling this bad, I should be able to handle this better,” than you are if you never learned that invalidation exists and that it’s wrong.
Validation is no more complex than kindness or respect. If we teach validation to children, the same way we’d teach anything else that we value, we can create a culture where people validate the feelings of others as well as their own.