Your adolescent is upset about something or another. Maybe he or she is crying. You know what the experts say: validate, validate, validate. Because children and teens are not always looking to problem-solve. They’re looking to be validated.
But what exactly does it mean to validate, and how do you do it?
Dialectical Behavior Therapy suggests that there are six levels of validation. With so many ways to show your teen you care, this highly powerful parenting skill can be easier than you think.
Six Ways to Validate Your Child or Teen
1. Nonverbal Validation
You can validate your adolescent simply with your body language: walking over to them, sitting down, rubbing their back, tilting your head into theirs. No words are necessary. “Just being physically present shows your child I hear you; I’m not ignoring you,” says Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Clinical Program Director at Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment for Teens. And if your teen is sharing something with enthusiasm, nonverbal validation could mean maintaining eye contact, nodding, and laughing at all the right moments.
2. Accurate Reflection
Accurate reflection means summarizing your observations about what your child 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 I set limits on your phone.” This form of validation is also known as mirroring, since you’re reflecting your child’s feelings back to them. Mirroring should be used even when a parent doesn’t necessarily agree with their adolescent’s statements. One can empathize nonjudgmentally without necessarily agreeing.
3. Mind Reading
Often, there’s more than meets the eye. Your adolescent might say she’s crying because she’s stressed about an exam tomorrow, but there might be something else going on, too. “Try and figure out what’s not being said,” says Guthmann. Phrase this as a question, though: “You’re saying you’re nervous about your test, but I’m wondering if you’re also really worried about a friend? Or school overall?’” Sometimes, a parent only sees 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 Past Experience
If your teen is expressing a strong emotion, consider past history. “Last time you had a panic attack at the birthday party, so of course you’d be scared that this is going to happen again…” This normalizes your child’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,” Guthmann 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 authenticity. Genuinely from a place of caring. While you can technically parrot a child’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.” Your child 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.
Likewise, Guthmann says that if you’re feeling angry and frustrated with your child but you’re trying to validate anyway, it can counteract the effect you’re trying to achieve. “If you’re using a harsh tone of voice, don’t say anything. Saying something validating in a mean way is worse than not saying anything at all.” This is also true if a parent is on her phone at the same time as trying to validate. Multitasking sends mixed signals to the child.
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 teen is interested. This could mean offering a tissue if a child is crying. Making them something to eat if they’re hungry. Helping them study if they could benefit from it. Or going out for a one-on-one ice cream date.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Validation and Change
Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT, encourages parents to always use the highest level of validation they can in any situation. As mentioned earlier, validation does not mean agreement; it is simply a tool that demonstrates acceptance and empathy. Even if you completely disapprove of the way your adolescent is acting, you should still validate their concerns and feelings.
Children crave acceptance from their parents at all times, but especially when they are young. A young toddler or child raised in an invalidating environment can grow up to develop mental health issues during adolescence. 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.
Sometimes, a parent is unable to provide sufficient validation if they themselves were raised in an invalidating household. Psychoeducation, parenting classes and other types of support can help teach them how to become more empathetic.
This is why Dialectical Behavior Therapy is such an effective treatment for many mental health issues. In a way, it reverses the effect that years of invalidation have had on a child. DBT therapists shower a teen with unconditional, genuine acceptance (via these levels of validation) while still encouraging them to improve. DBT practitioners advocate the idea that when a teen is not behaving appropriately, acceptance is necessary at the same time as change. 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.
DBT Mental Health Treatment Center for Teens
If you feel your child can benefit from an adolescent mental health, substance abuse or dual diagnosis treatment center, look for one that specializes in DBT. A DBT mental health treatment center can help a teen learn the coping skills to change their behavior and/or attitudes while still providing them with the necessary acceptance and genuine care they need to feel loved and safe.