We all think that we support our kids, but all too often we hear them tell us that they don’t think that we are listening to them. As parents, we often hear the common phrases, “You just don’t get it Dad!” and “I’ve already told you this a thousand times, Mom!” As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, I have been trained in the art of listening. A key skill I use to show children and teens that I understand what they are trying to tell me is called validation. Validation refers to recognizing the thoughts and feelings of others. I often do my best to train parents to practice this listening skill but usually hear the familiar responses of, “I listen to my kids all the time,” or “I’m always talking and checking in with my child.” So why does this communication gap exist? Why don’t kids think that parents get them?
Read on to learn more about the messages that we may really be sending our kids when trying to “listen” to them.
If your child says, “I hate this math class. It’s so hard.”
You might engage in Instruction Validation.
Instruction Validation refers to acknowledging what a person says but then telling them what they should think, feel, or do.
Example: “If the math class is hard, then you need to study harder.”
This approach can be effective in that it clearly tells the young person what can be done. However, the child or teen may feel like they are being lectured or being given tasks to complete vs. truly being heard.
You might engage in Dismissive Validation.
Dismissive Validation refers to offering a perspective that is in conflict to someone’s current perspective.
Example: “Don’t worry. You are so smart, and you will figure this out. This will get better.”
This approach may lead to boosts of confidence, but it can also minimize the child or teen’s actual feelings. Often, kiddos may even express anger when this occurs because they feel like you are not understanding how the problem is really impacting them. In addition, this approach may send an underlying message to kids that they cannot trust their own authentic thoughts and feelings and that they should look to others to provide them with support vs. learning how to emotionally support themselves.
You might engage in Problem-Solving Validation.
Problem-Solving Validation refers to helping someone solve a problem vs. just listening to how they think and feel about a problem.
Example: “Do you want me to help you study for math? Do you need a tutor? Maybe you should ask the teacher for help.”
This approach allows kids to brainstorm multiple ideas of how to address a situation. However, these ideas are not being authentically created by the kid. Thus, the child or teen may have less motivation to follow through with these ideas which came from an external source (parents) vs. an internal source (themselves). We usually follow through with solutions when we are executing our own ideas rather than following the ideas of others. This approach can also minimize or interfere with the natural processing of kids’ own thoughts and feelings.
So what do we do? I recommend Authentic Validation!
Authentic Validation refers to showing someone that you are trying to understand their problem the way they experience it. You do not try to solve their problem or attempt to make them feel better about what is happening.
Example: “Wow, it sounds like this math class is really challenging you. It’s so difficult that you are starting to really hate it!”
This allows the child or teen to feel that their current experience is being understood and supported. Young people will then often start to open up more or talk more about the problem. This approach lets them know that you’re listening without an agenda and that you’re truly trying to understand what they are trying to communicate. Kids may even begin sharing some of their own ideas about how they will go about addressing the problem. If not, natural opportunities to engage them in self-reflective problem solving usually emerge.
For example, you could say, “It sounds like you have really expressed all of your feelings about this math class. I’m wondering if you think things are hopeless or if you feel like something can be done?”
If you have a child who usually adopts a stubborn negative mindset, keep validating them until they get to their glimpse of hope. Then validate that glimpse of hope and watch it grow into more positive thinking! The hope always emerges but only after kids truly feel that they have been authentically validated.
Let’s keep creating experiences where kids feel the self-acceptance they need to become the next generation of innovators and thought leaders!
About the Author
Erica Whitfield is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and over 10 years of experience working with children and adolescents. She is the Founder of Positive Development, LLC, a counseling practice for youth located in Jacksonville, Florida. Erica combines expressive therapies using art, music, physical movement and writing, with evidenced-based therapeutic modalities such as CBT, solution-focused and positive psychology approaches to help children and adolescents process past trauma, transition during difficult life adjustments, form healthier relationships, perform better in school and work through self-harming behaviors. She specializes in providing strengths-based counseling and has helped hundreds of youth unleash their capabilities, transform obstacles into opportunities and find healthy ways to express their energy and creativity.