Kids experience big, scary feelings from the time they’re born.
They fall and scrape their knees.
They have a fight with their best friend.
Their teacher scolds them for something they didn’t do.
They lose a pet. Or break a favorite toy.
It’s gut-wrenchingly hard to watch your child suffering with disappointment, sadness or despair. Your heart tugs at you and all you want to do is fix things, as soon as possible!
You want to say something—anything—to make those feelings go away. To see them smile again. To see relief wash over their precious faces because they’ve stopped worrying.
Maybe we scoop them up in our arms and tell them, “It’s okay, you’re ok.”
Or we offer to take them out for ice cream or buy them a new toy to distract them from the sadness.
Or tell them that what they’re saying about themselves isn’t “true” - they’re not stupid. They CAN do something right.
Maybe their anger makes us so uncomfortable, we say, “Calm down. It’s not that big of a deal.” And we jump into fix-it mode: We tell them what we think is the best way to handle the issue.
Then there may be times our child tells us something that sends a chill down to our core. They feel “worthless”, or that they “shouldn’t be here”. So we blurt out, “Don’t say that! That’s not true.” And then we list all the ways they’re terrific and worthwhile.
We think we are making our child feel better. We think we’re rationalizing the situation for them. We think we are teaching them coping skills.
But in fact we may be doing none of those things.
Because all we’re doing is invalidating our child.
When your child is upset, you may assume that what you’re telling them is making them feel better, not invalidated.
Christina McGhee, an internationally recognized parenting expert, speaker and author, says that “It’s true that most parents are trying to do the very best job they can, but there are a lot of ways that invalidation happens unintentionally.”
For example, your child gets a D on a test even though they studied hard and did all their homework. They come home upset and on the verge of tears. When you ask her what’s wrong, she says, “I got a D! I guess I’m just stupid. I’ll never get a good grade!”
You don’t want her to feel bad about herself so you quickly respond, “Oh honey, you’re not stupid. Don’t say that! You’re so smart. It’s just one test, you shouldn’t let it upset you so much.”
You think you’re helping by telling her that she isn’t stupid and that there’s no reason to be that upset. You assume that hearing your reassurances, she’ll think, “If mom and dad think I’m smart, I must be mistaken about being stupid.”
But that’s not necessarily what she concludes.
She’s remembering how hard she studied and still got a D on her test. Instead of believing you that she’s not stupid, she simply thinks that you don’t understand her.
Telling her that she “shouldn’t” feel upset doesn’t cheer her up or relax her, it instead leads her to conclude that she must be wrong for feeling the way she does, which makes her feel even more upset.
Now in addition to feeling down about herself, she’s interpreting what you’re telling her as she shouldn’t trust her feelings.
You want to put things in perspective for her by reminding her that it’s “just one test”, but for her, this test was very important. Instead of feeling better about it, she feels worse because she concludes she’s stupid for thinking the test is a bigger deal than it is.
In other words, says Christina, “Invalidation is when what we say or what we communicate to our child is that their opinion doesn’t matter, or what they’re feeling doesn’t make sense. That what they’re feeling is wrong, irrational, or that they’re overreacting.”
And that’s how reassurances, comforting statements, and “putting things in perspective” for a child come across as invalidation and makes them feel worse about themselves.
Here’s another example: Your child has a part in the school play. They’ve enjoyed practicing their lines and participating in the rehearsals. But now it’s the day of the performance and they have a lot of anxiety. You’re about to drive them to school but they are crying and telling you they don’t want to go.
What might you say?
“You’ll do great, there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
“But you have to go!”
“I can’t believe you’re so scared. You were having so much fun at rehearsal!”
You may say these things because you want to let your child know that you have faith in them or that you think they’re capable. You want to put them at ease. Or you want to teach them that they need to follow through on their responsibilities.
But what your child hears is:
And that’s certainly NOT the message you intended to communicate. Nor is it what you would want your child to believe about themselves.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. What if something happened in your work day that upset you, and you came home and told your partner about it and their response was, “I can’t believe you’re so angry. You were having such a good week at work. There’s nothing to be so upset about!”
How would that make you feel to hear your partner say that?
Would you feel that your partner really listened and understood you? Would you feel loved and VALIDATED?
No, you’d probably feel dismissed and belittled.
You wouldn’t feel better at all!
According to Christina, the key to handling your child’s scary, big emotions is not trying to “fix” their emotions by telling them they shouldn’t feel that way, but to let your child know you understand how they’re feeling.
Instead of saying they don’t need to overreact or that everything will be okay, you might say,
“Hey, I get that. That makes sense and it’s normal. You know, if I were in that situation, I might feel the same way.”
What they conclude about themselves when you validate their feelings is:
When we’re able to validate their feelings instead of trying to “fix” their upset, we teach kids that big, scary feelings aren’t something to be afraid of or avoided.
We teach them that their feelings matter and that they’re not alone.
We show them that we understand and that we accept them and love them when they’re having big, scary feelings.
This enables them to accept themselves. It creates the space for them to reflect and grow from the challenge they’re experiencing.
And accomplishes what you intended all along:
Helping them be happier, more relaxed, and more confident.
Being able to validate your child’s big emotions takes skill and it takes practice. It’s not something we learned growing up, especially if we heard our parents saying such things as, “You’ll be okay, it’s not that bad,” or “Big boys and girls don’t cry.”
We catch ourselves saying the same things we heard from our parents, and unfortunately, we may not know how else to handle those difficult moments with our kids.
We simply don’t know what we don’t know.
That’s why we decided to turn to some of the world’s top experts and get their insights and advice on how to avoid the most common mistakes with parenting, and what to do instead.
When you subscribe to our free expert advice newsletter, you’ll get information-rich articles delivered to your inbox, with tons of actionable tips and specific advice to help you make positive changes in your parenting approach. These are articles by psychotherapists, authors, speakers and experts with decades of real-world experience working with families.
You’ll also learn:
As parents, we’re going to make mistakes. And that’s okay—mistakes are part of life. They’re an opportunity to learn and do better, for ourselves AND our kids.
That’s why we at Flourish want to give you the tools you need to make your job as a parent much easier, more joyful, and more connected.