From in utero to toddlerhood, kids soak up emotional signals from the world around them. And although it may seem daunting for young minds to grasp, teaching children how to recognize and regulate their feelings is a crucial part of growth - one that begins with validating emotions along the way!
Modern parenting has shifted from teaching emotional suppression to embracing the power of emotion, but it can be challenging. Despite our best intentions as parents and caregivers, we often fall into habits that prevent children from accessing all the rich benefits their emotions can provide - by accidentally invalidating them instead. To ensure a healthier approach is taken with today's kids, we need to recognize this tendency in ourselves and take steps towards changing it.
Emotional invalidation is the process of disconnecting children from their emotional awareness, which cuts them off from one of the biggest sources of information they will ever have. Emotions, skillfully worked with, help kids create meaningful lives filled with things that bring them joy. Emotions invite kids to honor what’s important to them and recognize and work with pain. They give kids a sense of hope which leads to resilience.
While emotion, especially from our children, may seem inconvenient or, at times, inconsequential, our response to children’s emotions helps them build a relationship with emotion that will last a lifetime. When we invalidate our children’s emotions, we are teaching them to dismiss and shut down the information these emotions provide our child and put our child at the mercy of others (expert or otherwise) who want to benefit from telling them what and how to feel.
When we invalidate emotions, we use phrases like:
You’re not really feeling _______________.
You shouldn’t feel that way.
There’s no reason for you to be upset right now.
It’s silly for you to make a big deal out of this.
You’re not acting in a way that makes people want to be around you. Put a smile on that face and be nice.
I don’t see why you need to talk about this again I thought we went over this (argument, complaint, etc.) already.
In each of those phrases, the present emotional experience of the child is denied, which in turn makes the child question the emotion they’re feeling. While this may not seem like a big deal when we’re talking about a tantrum over a broken toy, the trouble comes when this pattern of invalidating emotion becomes habitual. By providing emotional validation to our children, we can help shape their development into emotionally intelligent adults with a firm foundation for leading meaningful lives.
Before we go further, let’s look at the long-term impact of healthy emotional awareness. Imagine two adults:
This individual has cultivated a deep understanding and awareness of their emotions, recognizing them as they surface yet feeling no fear around exploring these feelings. With strong emotional intelligence, they are adept at navigating the challenging moments life often throws our way with immense resilience—realizing life's ebbs are just as important as life's flows. They view life as an ongoing adventure, and they can cultivate meaningful relationships with almost anyone through understanding and setting healthy boundaries.
Adult #2, has a very underdeveloped relationship with emotions. Emotions make them nervous, and they only allow themselves to feel “happy.” They tend to block or stifle uncomfortable emotions. Uncertain and unsure of themselves, they tend to ask for other people’s opinions and defer to other people’s suggestions. They often become anxious when other people are feeling strong emotions because they’re unsure what to do, and have trouble connecting with other people in deep ways, finding that most of their relationships are surface-level. When they do connect with someone, they struggle to uphold their own boundaries and instead favor the other person’s desires. While they don’t love her job, they aren’t sure what they would change. The thought of change and lack of direction leads to feelings of nervousness. Worrying about things that might go wrong and continually checking outside of themselves to connect with a sense of direction is limiting their growth and causing complacency.
These examples illustrate the kind of surety that comes when children have their emotions validated and are taught how to work with them, and the ways that confidence, self-awareness, and connection are compromised when emotions are invalidated.
By validating your child’s emotions, they will be able to cultivate a strong sense of self and better understand what they’re feeling and what those feelings mean. Empowered with that awareness, they can grow into adults who set and achieve goals, work through conflict, and connect meaningfully with other people.
Simple phrases to validate emotions:
That sounds challenging; tell me more.
Oh, you’re feeling frustrated that Kelly took your toy?
It sounds like what your teacher said really made you angry.
I know in the past, I have punished you for feeling angry. I’m learning and realizing that maybe we can work with anger differently. Help me know what would help you express that anger without hurting me or anyone else.
Given that you’re feeling ________________. What would be helpful right now?
Often there’s a fear that by validating an emotion, we’re going to make it grow. The reality is when we teach kids to understand and work with emotions, we diffuse the power they have over our children and allow them to regain emotional control through awareness and self-regulation strategies.