Relationships can be difficult especially when they become mired down in months or years of conflict. When this happens a wall can grow between us and those we care about. This can be even harder when the person behind the wall is your child. Some parents give up hope of ever having a close bond with their teen or young adult again after years of pain and rejection have come between them. It can be hard to believe that anything could possibly turn the tide and bring the relationship back on track. And while this article is by no means a cure-all for troubled relationships, it does teach a skill that has been proven effective in reducing interpersonal conflicts. Validation is a tried and true method for relating to others and helping ease the difficulties of communication.
When it comes to developing satisfying relationships or rescuing those that seem doomed, the skill of validation can be very helpful. And while not all people will respond to this deceptively simple yet highly effective skill, most people, especially teens, will warm to you more quickly when you use it on them. And not only will others warm up to you more quickly, they may also open up and begin to trust you. It’s in the soil of warmth and trust that relationships can heal and grow.
Validation is a simple term, it means: To confirm, to verify, or to authenticate. Think of the last time you entered a parking garage that had you get a ticket from a machine before you could go in. It stamped a little yellow piece of paper with a time and date on it simply to “Validate” that you had arrived. The ticket confirmed that you had shown up and it verified that you had a place in that garage. It had authenticated your presence and purpose in that place. It neither agreed nor disagreed with you being there, it just verified that you were there. Validation in relationships is the same thing. But before we dive into learning how to validate others, it might be more helpful to examine this topic from another angle. Let’s look first at the opposite of validation - which is invalidation.
Most of us have been on the giving and/or receiving end of a painful, invalidating experience with a person that we found difficult to deal with. And, most of us would probably like to avoid these interactions again in the future. Understanding invalidation, what it looks like, how it feels, and what results from it can help us move away from invalidating situations and move towards building a more effective response when we find ourselves at odds with someone we care about the next time around.
What is invalidation?
To invalidate means to weaken, to nullify, to cancel, to reject, ignore or to dismiss. Invalidation can occur with words, a tone of voice, ignoring someone, a look or with gestures. The most common ways we communicate invalidation to someone we are close to is by rejecting their view on things, rejecting a normal response from them, not allowing someone to have their own opinion or to be heard, by dismissing or disregarding a person who is in the room with you, directly criticizing or punishing a person using shame tactics, and/or labeling them with undesirable characteristics and name-calling.
What are examples of invalidating responses?
Rejecting their view as inaccurate
Your son just passed a difficult math test. He said that he felt like Einstein. As his dad, you remember having to bug him and fight with him to study and you feel mad that now he’s boasting about his success and you say, “You don’t know what you are talking about. You only passed that test because of me”
Reject an age-appropriate response
Your daughter is watching her favorite show and doesn’t feel like doing her chores right now. As her mom you’ve been frustrated with the state of her bedroom because it’s messy and you feel like you’ve been giving her too many nice things that she just doesn’t take care of, so you say to her, “You’re just a lazy brat.”
Reject their response to events
Your child comes home and is obviously angry and walks directly to his bedroom. You follow him and find out his favorite teacher yelled at him today and embarrassed him in front of the class. You reply, “Well, what did you do to make him mad?” followed by, “My teachers yelled at me, too. You’ll get over it. If that’s the worst thing that happens to you, you’re doing pretty good.”
Dismiss or disregard someone
Your daughter’s favorite pet was accidentally hit and killed by a neighbor’s car. Two weeks after the incident your daughter is still wounded by the event and finds it hard to get out of bed and go to school. Your reply, “Oh, come on. It was just a cat. Get over it already. When I was a kid we had pets die all the time and we didn’t do this sissy stuff. ”
Directly criticize or punish, especially in front of others
Your teen is with you at grandpa’s birthday party. Grandma cut the cake and your teen is helping to pass out the cake when she accidentally drops one of the plates. Grandma says, “You idiot. You don’t get any birthday cake if you’re just going to smear it all over my floor.”
Reject and link responses to socially unacceptable characteristics
Your son is helping his uncle are in the garage. One of the bigger tools just accidentally fell on his fingers and his eyes start to water and his nose runs. His Uncle says, “Dude, don’t be a baby. Crying means you are weak. It wasn’t that bad, suck it up.”
Ignore their presence
Your child or teen walks in the room with you and sits down. You neither look up from what you’re doing nor acknowledge her in any way. When she tries to talk to you, you take a call on your cellphone in the middle of the conversation without making arrangements to finish the conversation with her at a later time.
How does invalidation impact us?
- People who are routinely or traumatically invalidated or who believe they were invalidated, develop confusion about self; learn not to trust self and rely instead on the social environment and other people (e.g. peers) to develop the correct responses in life.
- They have problems regulating emotions and may ignore or withhold emotions or they become extremely emotional.
- They learn to oversimplify and become highly sensitive to failure, perfectionism, and form unrealistic goals.
- They develop responses to and a view of the world that is not accurate.
- Look to others to tell them how to do things.
- Develop distrust, fear, cynicism, hatred or avoidance of those that invalidate them.
- They invalidate themselves and in turn, invalidate other people, including you.
The Power of Validation
If any of the above examples have gone on in your family, the good news is that validation is a learned set of skills you can begin to practice and apply today – as in tonight - at the dinner table. That’s how easy it is to get started with this skill. To validate someone's feelings is first to accept someone's feelings - and then to understand them - and finally to nurture them. To validate is just to acknowledge and accept a person. Like the parking garage when you drive in - it acknowledges that you have arrived and lifts the gate to let you in.
Examples of validating responses
Focus on listening and observing; staying aware; be in the moment
Your daughter is upset about her cat dying. When she is talking and crying, you are nodding your head and holding her hand.
Focus on accurate reflection; restate what the person had said.
Your son is upset about criticism from his favorite teacher. He is hanging his head and looking away from you and saying, “She is just so stupid.” You say, “I can see this must have been hard for you.”
Focus on observing and stating the unspoken; restate what the person’s non-verbals are.
You daughter is talking about how she does all the chores while her little brother is gone all the time to his sporting events. Her fists are clenched and her brow is furrowed. You say to her, “I can see you are really upset. You’re thinking it’s unfair and that you shouldn’t be asked to do all of that.”
Focus on causes of behaviors including past and present; restate past and connect it to current issue.
Your 14-year old daughter has had another falling out with her friends. They have decided to kick her out of their friend group. This has happened three times with different girls since school began. You want to blame her and tell her how to be a better friend, instead you say, “I can’t imagine how this must make you feel. I know this really hurt last time, too. I am so sorry.”
Focus on treating the person as an equal; treat them the way you would want to be treated
Your child is about to be cut from the basketball team for his poor grades and is now facing a big test on his least favorite subject. You want to remind him to be sure to pass so he’s not cut because you spent so much money on his uniform and shoes. Instead, on the way to school you say, “It’s normal to feel anxiety before a big test; most people feel this way. I’m glad you’re sticking with it.
Sometimes our teenagers seem like strangers in our own home. We struggle to relate to them and it is a chore to even find one good thing to say. You’re not alone. Many parents report a sense of loss when it comes to talking to their adolescent. Here’s why: We all know how to validate someone with whom we agree. If someone goes to my same church, is similar to me in age, enjoys my type of music, has my same values or likes the same things that I do, then I probably find it a joy to spend time talking to them and it’s easy to let them know how much I like what they say. I don’t usually feel agitated and judgmental when I’m around them. However, with our teens, they can sometimes seem to be so different from us that all we can see are the differences and disagreements. Where validation skills are most the valuable is in dealing with situations where we disagree, when the person is not like us, or when we are in conflict with someone.
Marcia Linehan, who developed DBT, relates themultiple levels of validation:
Overall show interest in the other person (through verbal, nonverbal cues), show that you are paying attention (nodding, eye contact, etc.)
Ask questions - "What then?" Give prompts - "Tell me more," "Uh-huh."
Use accurate reflection - "So you're frustrated because you son hasn't picked up his room."
Summarize what the person is sharing, then ask - "Is that right?"
Take a nonjudgmental stance toward the person, be matter-of-fact, have an "of course" attitude.
Example: "My therapist doesn't like me."
Validation: "You are feeling really certain she hates you." Note that you don't have to actually agree with the person about their perceptions.
Try to "read" a person's behavior, imagine what they could be feeling, thinking or wishing for. It feels good when someone takes the time to think about our life experiences. Remember to check for accuracy. It is best to not make assumptions.
Validate the person's behavior in terms of causes like past events present events even when it may be triggered based on dysfunctional association.
*Validate feelings like, "Since your new boss reminds you of your last one, I can see why you'd be scared to meet with her," or "Since you have had panic attacks on the bus, you're scared to ride one now."
Communicate that the person's behavior is reasonable, meaningful, and effective.
*Validate feelings like, "It seems very normal to be nervous before a job interview - that sure makes sense to me," or "It sounds like you were very clear and direct with your doctor."
Treat the person as valid - not patronizing or condescending.
Recognize the person as they are with strengths and limitations.
Give the person equal status, equal respect.
Be genuine with the person about your reactions to them and about yourself.
Believe in the other person while seeing their struggles and pain.
Validation certainly isn't easy at first, but with practice it can become second nature. Perhaps with practice it will have a positive impact on you and your family.