Health and Wellness
THE IMPORTANCE OF VALIDATING FEELINGS.
Every parent knows the value of communication with their children. It is probably the most sought after goal, and desire. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cited research indicating that when communication breaks down, the mental health of adolescents suffer. The article quotes that “teens who disclose their daily activities and inner feelings to a parent tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors”. While seemingly obvious, why is it that the barriers to communication are often great? One study asked teenagers “who would you most like to talk to about problems” and the overwhelming majority answered an understanding adult. However, when asked “ who DO you talk to about problems”, the majority answered a friend/another teen. In essence, they are getting most of their input and advice from friends who have similar experiences, rather than parents who have their best interest at heart, combined with extensive life experience.
The reason for this is that teenagers often do not feel heard, and feel adults talk at them, rather than to them. The most important skill/factor to reverse this trend is learning how to validate feelings. This is the cornerstone for good communication, not only with your children. First, we have to understand that feelings are never incorrect. When your child says they are sad, angry, hurt, you can’t say “no you’re not”. Feelings are always the result of thinking. What our thoughts tell us, create and lead to our feelings. While our feelings are always correct, our thinking may be distorted, based on wrong information, or exaggerated. It is essential to learn to validate feelings. What that means is to listen carefully, hear what your child is feeling, and let them know you understand the feeling, based on what they are telling you.
For example, if they come home and say they are really angry at their teacher, and you ask why, and they say they were not treated fairly, you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes, and validate their feeling experience. You might say “if you think you were not treated fairly, I could understand why you are angry”. This is not agreeing with their perception, but understanding that how they feel is correct based on their perception. When you validate their feeling, they feel heard, and you have built a bridge of communication with them which allows you to begin to understand, or question, their thinking. With their feelings validated, they will be much more willing to look at other possibilities. If the thinking can change, eg, you come to an understanding that they were treated strictly, but not unfairly by the teacher in our example, their feelings will change. Changing thinking changes feelings.
That is one of the primary goals of counseling – to challenge and change thinking which may be leading to negative feelings. The reverse of validating feelings is called invalidating feelings. As parents, we do this unknowingly, usually with good intent. If you want to insure that your child will not want to share and open up with you, make them feel like you think their feelings are incorrect. This is often done caringly, and with good intent, but the results are a shutdown in communication. In our example, a parent would say “you shouldn’t be angry at your teacher – I’m sure he wasn’t being unfair”. The child experiences this being told they are wrong, and although they may not say so, will begin to shut down. The most direct invalidation is “you shouldn’t feel that way”.
As stated, learning how to validate feelings is one of the most essential skills to good communication. It is complex, and not easy. You must work at listening, at trying to hear the feelings which are being communicated (sometimes indirectly), and then make it clear that you understand, and respect (not necessarily agree with) the perspective and point of view. When you are able to validate your child’s feelings, you may be surprised that they are much more willing to open up to you.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at email@example.com.
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center