For this month’s blog post, I wanted to write on the concepts of emotional validation and invalidation.
Emotional validation is an important psychological concept, as well as a basic need for children. Adults need it too. Really, all humans need it because it is vital for genuine connection. For children, though, it is especially important that they receive it from their caregivers while growing up and developing their sense of self-concept and self-esteem. Lacking emotional validation and/or being invalidated growing up can have long-term ramifications and harmful effects, so I thought I’d spend some time breaking this down and providing some examples.
Let’s start with definitions. I wanted to know what is commonly understood by the word “validation, “ so I googled it. Here’s what I found (the source is Oxford Languages):
“The action of checking or proving the validity or accuracy of something; the action of making or declaring something legally or officially acceptable.”
Here’s what I found for “invalidation”:
“To make (an argument, statement, or theory) unsound or erroneous; deprive (an official document or procedure) or legal efficacy because of contravention of a regulation or law.”
These definitions clearly have legal or logistical undertones, but they are a good start. They at least give us some context.
So, let’s apply a psychological or emotional lens to this concept.
Here’s a good working definition of emotional invalidation by Dr. Jamie Long, a licensed psychologist based in Fort Lauderdale:
“Invalidation is the process of denying, rejecting or dismissing someone’s feelings. Invalidation sends the message that a person’s subjective emotional experience is inaccurate, insignificant and/or unacceptable.”
One key word in that definition is “subjective.”
In my clinical experience, which is also informed by research I did in grad school and after on the subject of emotional invalidation, this gap in communication happens often because parents (or whoever the “invalidator” in the interaction is) often feel like it is their job to “correct” a child or to “give them perspective.” Examples of this can include statements like, “If they get so sad/upset about this little thing, how are they going to handle life later?” or “So and so had it worse and turned out ok/didn’t get this sad,” or “I just want my kid to move on from what happened and learn to see the bright side in life.”
Intent vs. impact
I think most times these statements come from a good place. The thing is that, unfortunately, intent and impact can be really different. Sometimes how we intend something to come across to someone else impacts them in a way that we did not anticipate or mean. So, if we’re not careful, we can do a lot of emotional harm even if we mean well.
Especially when the interaction is between an adult and a child, there’s a clear power differential. As adults, we have more life experience, wisdom and coping skills. We’ve also been through more sad things, so we’ve had more of a chance to learn how to “ride the waves.” But a child’s reality is THEIR reality based on how much THEY have lived, THEIR emotions and THEIR ability to cope and regulate. Certainly, it is a subjective reality, but so is everyone’s outlook on life. And especially when a child has survived a traumatic event or series of events, like abuse, we really have to tell ourselves as adults, caregivers and helpers that WHEREVER the child is with their emotions is ok and is where they are supposed to be. We also need to remember that healing is a marathon, not a sprint. Humans don’t move on from trauma or grief; we move forward with it. We learn to manage triggers and cope with emotional dysregulation. The goal is not to avoid reminders, memories or negative feelings – because doing so only makes them bigger and scarier. The more we push negative feelings down, the more dysregulated we become and the harder it is to genuinely feel better in the long-term. (See my other blog post on the importance of emotional regulation and a great social media post on toxic positivity.)
When it comes to teenagers, emotional validation matters greatly. There’s research pointing to the fact that parental invalidation is associated with self-harm and suicidal ideation for the teenager. Chronic childhood invalidation is also a risk factor for developing borderline personality disorder – a condition characterized by unstable moods, behaviors and relationships. (Berk et al, 2018; Keng & Sogh, 2018).
How to validate
Validating someone’s feelings, thoughts or experiences involves learning about their subjective reality WITHOUT having an agenda – which I know can be hard for a parent/caregiver, because we want the best for our children and we feel like it is our job to guide them in life. However, as much as you can, try to actively listen to your child from a place of curiosity rather than from a place of wanting to teach or correct. Try not to interrupt them and try to reflect back to them what they’re saying. (Reflecting statements sound like, “I can see you’re upset” or “What I’m hearing you say is …”). Validating someone also involves accepting who they are, where they are with their emotions and how THEY perceive themselves. Validating someone essentially means we’re sending the person the message, “I see you. I’m here for you. I want to get to know your mind and heart. I want to know how you feel about what you have been through.” It also means, “I’m proud of how far you’ve come, I know you got this, and IT IS OK to have slip-ups and feel sad feelings sometimes.”
Here are some validating statements from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) handbook by the Center for Success and Independence. (DBT, by the way, is a therapy modality proven through research to effectively treat borderline personality disorder, which often, as was discussed previously, comes hand in hand with self-harm, suicidal ideation and chronic feelings of invalidation):
- “That took a lot of work on your part.”
- “You seem…. You appear to be… I can tell you are…. [insert emotion]”
- “What do you think? / What are your thoughts on this?”
- “How do you feel about that?”
- “That makes a lot of sense.”
- “I’m so happy/excited/concerned for you.”
- “I wish I could make this better for you. I am here for you. Please tell me more.”
- “I can tell you are really struggling with this and it is ok for things to feel hard sometimes.”
- “I’ve never been through anything like that, but I’m here to listen.”
Validating doesn’t mean you agree
Validating your child or teen’s emotions does not have to mean that you agree; I think that’s a common misconception. There are certainly ways in which we can provide emotional validation without endorsing or condoning a behavior that we think is problematic.
Let’s say, for example, that a teen is abusing a substance to cope with hard feelings after a traumatic event and they’re opening up about it to us. We could say something like, “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me about how you feel. I know it’s probably really hard to talk about this stuff with a parent for fear that you might get in trouble. I can tell you’re struggling and have a lot of big feelings that can be hard to face. I know that [insert behavior] may help numb them. I’m just really worried about you and your safety and I want you to know that you’re not a bad kid. If you’re ready for it, could we have a conversation about healthier ways for you to cope with your feelings that won’t put your safety at risk?” I know it may seem like that’s “therapist talk” and it’s unrealistic. But I promise that validating and reflecting statements get easier and more natural with time.
What to avoid
Finally, I’ll leave you with some examples of invalidating statements to avoid from the same handbook:
- “You need to think about this differently / You’re not thinking / You are thinking about this wrong.”
- “You just need to [insert unsolicited advice].”
- “You shouldn’t feel/react this way.”
- “Why can’t you just …?” “It’s not that hard …”
- “That’s not a reason to be upset / You can’t be getting upset about little things like this.”
- “You don’t really think that. I know you.”
- “That’s ridiculous / That doesn’t make sense.”
- “Your sister/brother didn’t react like this.”
- “Plenty of people have it worse than you. You should be grateful.”
- “Look at the bright side. At least …”
So, go on. Carry on validating others and yourself. I promise it’ll foster closeness and human connection – which are like oxygen for our mental health and that of our children.
Elena Petre, LMSW
Keng, S. L., & Soh, C. Y. (2018). Association between childhood invalidation and borderline personality symptoms: self-construal and conformity as moderating factors. Borderline personality disorder and emotion dysregulation, 5, 19. doi:10.1186/s40479-018-0096-6
Adrian, M., Berk, M. S., Korslund, K., Whitlock, K., McCauley, E., & Linehan, M. (2018). Parental Validation and Invalidation Predict Adolescent Self-Harm. Professional psychology, research and practice, 49(4), 274–281. doi:10.1037/pro0000200