"You're ok, you're ok, you're ok, my little lamb," I say while stroking my son's back as he cries big fat wet wailing tears after shutting his fingers in a drawer.
Of course, he is not ok. Shutting his fingers in a drawer hurt like a son of a gun and he is letting me know that wail, after holler, after scream. And "you're ok" isn't really what I mean, is it?
What I mean is something like, "I know it hurts my sweet baby. Nothing is broken, all of your fingers are still attached and even though it hurts terribly now it won't hurt forever."
But that is not what I say. I tell him "He's ok." But I am just consoling myself.
As a Child Life Specialist, one of the most precious skills I learned to employ was validation. Validation, here, means to acknowledge and sometimes normalize someone's feelings or reactions to a specific scenario. Sounds easy right?! It's simple, but friends it is not truly easy. Despite doing it professionally for years, I forget to use it is a parent! Way too often. In school and at the hospital I learned that validation continues the conversation, creates trust, and helps children communicate their truest feelings with the adults around them.
When our child tells us they are afraid of the dark, nervous to go on stage at their dance recital, or that they know a "shot" (vaccine) is going to hurt…we validate those concerns, like a boss!
"The room does look different without any light and its harder to see. Want to use a nightlight?"
"Mommy always got nervous for her dance recitals too, want to practice one more time?"
"Shots do hurt but only for a second! And then we can go get ice cream! How can mommy help you to be brave? Want to squeeze my hand?"
But there are times when we struggle to validate our children's concerns because we run toward protection so quickly, we inadvertently dismiss their feelings and fears.
WHAT?! You might be thinking, you don't know me. I would NEVER. And maybe you wouldn't, maybe you are a perfect flawless parental specimen… or maybe just maybe, you are a little bit like me and you fall into a trap when your kids say:
"I'm ugly, no one likes me! I hate my face!"
"I'll never ever understand this. I am just stupid."
"l just can't do it. I will never be able to."
"I hate school. The teachers hate me and I have no friends."
Do you then say something like:
"You are not ugly, sweetheart, you are gorgeous! You have a million friends! What are you talking about?"
"You are not stupid! You are one of the smartest people I know! Just give yourself a chance!"
"Yes, you can! I know you can!"
"Since when?! Your teachers have always loved you!? What makes you say that? If you have no friends then who are you always playing Call of Duty with at all hours?!"
"Ok, I see your point," you might say "but what does this have to do with school and why shouldn't I say that to my kiddos? It's all true!" I promise, my school connection is on the horizon! Hang tight!
You have every right to speak your truth and your opinion to your kiddos. You have every right to shower them with praise! To mirror to them the love you feel for them so they can try to feel it for themselves.
But what if I tell you, friend, you might reach their hearts more quickly and you might get a longer conversation if you validate them first?!
Everything above is fine to tell your kiddos. It's true for you and everyone has done it. But a lot of times, the conversation stops there.
What if we would keep it going...
Now, before we delve any further into validation first, its time for congratulations! Yes for YOU mama, and for YOU dad! Why?!
Because if your kiddos are telling you any or all these things above… they are telling you their deepest thoughts. Their most difficult fears, the things that bring them pain and feel like secrets. You have shown them they can trust you with these fears and disappointments. Of anyone they could share with or between keeping it locked away in their own heart: they came to you! They chose YOU! Pat yourself on the back a minute. You are a good mama, a good daddy, a good stepparent, caregiver. You are doing it.
Now that you have hung up your best mama plaque and filled up your number 1 dad coffee mug let's look at some ways we can keep the conversation going.
Kid: "I'm ugly, no one likes me! I hate my face!"
Validating reaction: "You are feeling like you are ugly, and you are unhappy with your appearance. I hate hearing that you are hurting. Can you tell me more about that?"
More follow up might be: "What do you wish was different? You said you are feeling like no one likes you. Can you tell me more about what made you feel like this?"
Kid: "I'll never ever understand this. I am just stupid."
Validating reaction: "It is so frustrating when you are working so hard to learn something new. I am so sorry it is making you feel like you are stupid. What have you already tried to help you understand this so far?"
Kid: "l just can't do it. I will never be able to."
Validating reaction: "I am so sorry you are having trouble with this. I know sometimes it can feel like nothing will ever work. Do you remember when you were first learning to ride a bike how many tries it took before you got it right? And how proud you felt of yourself when you didn't give up?"
Kid: "I hate school. The teachers hate me and I have no friends."
Validating reaction: "I am so sorry to hear that you are disappointed in how school is going. Can I ask what happened with the teachers and your friends to make you feel that way?"
Of course, these scripts are not perfect, and no words are ever going to be foolproof, but they hopefully open a door to a continued conversation. We all want our kids to continue to come to us with their real feelings, especially fears and disappointments so that we can help them move past their challenges. By acknowledging their feelings as real and true and following up with questions we are pressing onward instead of halting a thought or feeling in its tracks.
Now, why did I blather on about this for 3 pages when I am supposed to be talking about school?! Well, friends, good ol' 2020 is bringing on a school year for us that is unlike any other!
Many families are trying schooling a new way for the first time. Families who are returning to traditional school have been home for the spring break turned into summer for closer to 20 weeks than our usual 12. And even then, school is probably just plain going to look different than it did before.
Our children might be inspired, motivated, scared, cautious, excited, frantic, depressed, angry, thrilled, confused, and the list goes on and on! So, when they come to us with those real feelings, we now more than ever want to keep the conversation going! We want to validate them and know that their feelings are real, and they matter, and they are heard.
AND THEN… we can do the mom/dad knows the best speech. What, you thought you didn't get to do that anymore? Oh, you do! After you have validated and talked and heard and shared together then you get to say:
"Thank you again for sharing your feelings with me and I am so glad we talked. But you know I am your mama, so I always get to say, there is not an ugly thing about you! You are gorgeous and perfect just the way you are, and I love you forever! "
"Thank you for telling me about how you were feeling about learning that new thing. I want to be here for you, and I am glad we came up with some solutions. But just so you know, I'm not going to let you call my baby stupid again. You are smart, bright, creative, and awesome."
"I am glad you shared your worries with me about being able to complete that project. I'm really glad we got to talk it out. Just so you know, even when you don't think you can do it, I am your dad and I will always know you can."
"Thanks for telling us about how you were feeling about school. Honestly, things are hard right now and some things just kind of suck. We are so sorry and we are here to listen and to try to help wherever we can. But just so you know, if somebody doesn't like you or doesn't want to be friends with you, we think they are missing out and that's too bad for them. We love you. Because kid, you are a freaking masterpiece."
As we prepare for this wacky doodle school year of challenges and triumphs I am going to try, as best I can, to stop patting my littlest sweetheart on the back and telling him "he's ok" when his tears are telling me he's not.
I would love to invite all of us as a community together as parents to encourage through validation and acknowledgment. To say all of what we mean rather than rush toward protection.
Our kids need our protection, but perhaps more than protection from their feelings, what they need from us is navigation, help with the homework of emotions, to see those feelings through.
Steps to having a validation conversation:
- Secretly congratulate yourself on your kiddo sharing their hard feelings with you!
- Acknowledge the feeling, show that you feel like it is a normal response and that you can relate.
- Ask questions about the feelings to help your kiddo learn about themselves and rethink their situation.
- Give your mom or dad "you are actually awesome" speech to your kiddo.
- Secretly congratulate yourself again. Because mama & dad, you are a masterpiece too.
Written by: Lindsay O'Sullivan
Child Life Specialist & ED for A Children's House For The Soul
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