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Six Ways to Validate a Client, According to DBT

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Your client is upset about something or another. You know you have to validate. But did you know there are six levels of validation, according to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)? DBT developer Dr. Marsha Linehan identified six ways to validate another person, with each level increasing in difficulty. The higher the level, the more intensely a clinician is validating his/her client.

Six Ways to Validate a Person:

1. Nonverbal Validation

Validation starts simply with showing your interest and being present. A lot of this can be done via your body language: tilting your head, furrowing your brow, maintaining eye contact, and other nonverbal means of communication. No words are necessary. “Just being physically present like this shows someone I hear you; I’m not ignoring you,” says Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Executive Clinical Director of Evolve Treatment Centers. And if a client is sharing something with enthusiasm, nonverbal validation could mean smiling, nodding, and laughing at all the right moments.

2. Accurate Reflection

Accurate reflection means summarizing your observations about what the client is expressing without any sort of judgment whatsoever. For example: “I can see you’re really feeling bad about this” or “It sounds like it really upsets you when your mom sets limits on your phone.” This form of validation is also known as mirroring, since you’re reflecting your client’s feelings back to them. Of course, mirroring should be used even when a client’s statements seem contradictory or negative. Reflecton doesn’t mean agreement; it doesn’t mean you approve of what they’re feeling. It just means you’re empathizing nonjudgmentally.

3. Mind Reading

Often, there’s more than meets the eye. Your client might say he’s crying because he’s stressed and panicked about an exam tomorrow, but there might be something else going on, too. “Try and figure out what’s not being said,” says Orcena. Phrase this as a question: “You’re saying you’re nervous about your test, but I’m wondering if you’re also really upset about the whole coronavirus situation, and not being able to see your friends?’” Often, a client only shares the tip of an iceberg; there’s usually a much more beneath the surface. Try to guess what they might be thinking about, or wishing for.

4. Validation Based on History

If your teen is expressing a strong emotion, consider their past history and experiences. “Last time you had a panic attack during the exam, so of course it makes sense you’d be scared that this is going to happen again…” This normalizes your client’s experience and feelings. And, ironically, it makes them feel better.

5. Validation Based on Human Experience

“Whatever the teen is thinking, feeling, doing, we accept simply because they’re human,” Orcena says. “So we’d say, ‘Gosh, of course a breakup is so distressing…Anyone would feel this way. Crying is such a natural human response; it makes a lot of sense.’”

6. Radical Genuineness

“Whenever you validate someone, try your hardest to do so from a place of truth and authenticity. Genuinely from a place of caring. While you can technically parrot a client’s words back to them stoically, without feeling much of your own emotion within, the ideal way to do it is with radical genuineness. You need to try and sincerely, genuinely care about what your child is struggling with.” This is the last level of validation, and the most difficult. It cannot be used all the time, but it can in certain circumstances. A client can sense whether you’re just mumbling the right words or if you’re really trying hard to understand their emotions on a deep level. Radical genuineness involves the therapist as a human, an equal: not taking them too seriously

(One Extra Level: Functional Validation)

Some mental health professionals add another level: functional validation. This means taking physical steps to try and solve the problem or acknowledge that it’s happening, if your client is interested. This could mean offering a tissue if a client is crying. Sending them links to summer opportunities if they share they don’t have anything to this summer. Or, if you’re a school counselor, connecting them with academic resources if they’re struggling.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Validation and Change

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, the focus is on acceptance and change. When a teen is engaging in negative behaviors, DBT therapists shower the client with unconditional, genuine acceptance (via these levels of validation) while still encouraging them to improve. This is called the “dialectical approach” – dialectical referring to the idea that a teen needs to be accepted and needs to change at the same time. Your goal is to teach a client coping skills to change their behavior and/or attitudes while still providing them with the necessary acceptance and genuine care they need to feel safe. In a way, this type of treatment reverses the effect that years of invalidation have had on a child.

Experts say that depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, codependency, bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders can result when a child is being chronically invalidated by a parent. A young toddler or child raised in an invalidating environment may grow up to develop these mental health issues during adolescence. This is why, during the clinical process, validation is so important.

It’s also beneficial to teach parents how to validate teen clients at home. Family therapy, psychoeducation, parenting classes and other types of support can help teach parents how to become more empathetic.

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