How to Validate Feelings: 10 Key Parenting Responses

validate children's feelings

We all have a need to be seen and heard by the important people in our lives. We crave the affirmation of our emotions and experiences. Especially the negative ones. It provides us with self-assurance and the ability to form meaningful relationships with those who “get it.” Young children are no exception. As a professional school counselor, I have an essential duty to affirm students’ feelings, no matter how serious or silly their troubles may seem. As positive parents, we carry that same heightened responsibility. When we know how to validate feelings for children, we lay the groundwork for them to grow socially and emotionally.

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10 Key Tips to Validate Big Emotions by Such a Little While
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How to Validate Feelings: First, Reflect on Your Own Emotional Needs

Think back to a recent bad day. Perhaps the copy machine at work broke just before your big deadline. Maybe you spent all morning chasing down your kids with sunscreen only for a thunderstorm to roll in. Later, you just want to blow off some steam to your partner. Which response would you prefer?

  1. “Oh, that’s no big deal! You shouldn’t feel frustrated. You’re fine!”
  2. “Wow, are you serious? That sounds awful! What a frustrating day it’s been for you.”

The second response is likely what you’re hoping for after a long and hard day. Often, we aren’t looking for someone to come in and fix things. We don’t want to be told our problems don’t matter. Or worse, that our feelings are wrong in some way. The magnitude of our problems may change with age; however, the basic need for validation remains constant throughout our lives and relationships.

Social/Emotional Outcomes When We Know How to Validate Feelings in Children

Without question, when we know how to validate feelings for young children, we build trust and help deescalate challenging behavior. Furthermore, by affirming their emotions, we can increase children’s self-confidence as well as their ability to identify and cope with feelings in the future. In contrast, invalidating statements can make things worse for kids. Research suggests that statements such as “there’s nothing to feel afraid of” can result in young children becoming more fearful.

Now let’s think ahead to when our children reach late childhood, adolescence, and eventually their teenage years. Imagine they are ridden with guilt and shame over making a big mistake. Or perhaps they are feeling depressed after facing a significant loss. Who can they turn to? I realize these are scenarios we prefer not to think about. However, if you answered “me”, it’s critical to set the precedent now that difficult feelings are always on the table for discussion. Show your child they are safe to come to you with their feelings and that they will receive a consistent, empathic response.

Why don’t we always know how to validate feelings?

A common myth is that if you validate young children’s feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration, you are also permitting the poor choices that often follow those emotions. On the contrary, when you validate children’s feelings, you are planting a seed from which healthy coping and positive decision-making can grow. As humans, we may be able to control our actions, but we have very little control over our initial feelings.

Additionally, giving someone permission to experience a negative emotion can feel a little odd for many of us. And then to sit with them in that feeling… well, that’s just downright uncomfortable! If you’re feeling uneasy, you are not alone. How we respond to feelings has often been ingrained in us since childhood. Responses like “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” have been pretty commonplace in families for generations. Even the most nurturing of parents may utter statements like, “it’s okay!” and “please don’t cry!” when their son or daughter experiences distress. Fortunately, after a little practice, it will become more natural to validate children’s feelings.

How to validate feelings when faced with parenting criticism

Positive and gentle parents are no strangers to criticism, especially when it comes to validating feelings. My guide on How to Overcome Gentle Parenting Criticism has become a trusted source for many like-minded parents facing this issue. It’s certainly not easy, but no level of judgment is worth compromising doing what you believe is right for your children. You’re not alone!

How to Validate Feelings: 10 Essential Parenting Responses

#1 Take an “Empathic Pause”

Most likely, it’s been quite a while since you experienced heartbreak over having to wear socks or brush your teeth! The strong emotional response that young children experience over such tiny inconveniences will always seem wildly blown out of proportion to adults. That is unless we take an “empathic pause”. Without empathy, we cannot genuinely validate our children’s experiences and emotions. And let’s face it, kids are smart. They know when we don’t mean it. Before jumping to “you’re fine, it’s no big deal!”, try to take a step back into those tiny shoes. How do things appear from their point of view? In a child’s world, these things are a big deal and his or her experience is real.

#2 Provide Time & Space to Process Emotions

Being in the presence of an upset child can bring about a mix of emotions in us as adults. In moments of feeling frustrated or upset ourselves, we often want a quick-fix. So much so that we might squash our child’s feelings before they have truly experienced them. “Mommy’s here and will make everything better now!” Before swooping in to save the day*, know it’s okay to give your child the chance to “feel their feelings”, both good and bad. Before kids can learn effective coping skills, they must first learn to identify and recognize their own emotions.

*It’s important to note we’re talking about toddlers and young children here, not infants. If you have a crying baby, please go ahead and save the day without thinking twice! Interested in learning more about responding empathically to your baby’s cries? I invite you to explore my Attachment Parenting Guide for New Moms.

#3 Hear Them Out

Active listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. Before jumping in with your solution, provide your child with a chance to explain that big feeling (so long as they are not hurting anyone, placing themselves in danger, or damaging property).

Visual tools can be an immensely helpful resource in helping young children identify and express emotions. I invite you to check out some of my favorites from Such a Little While’s CALM Collection below.

The CALM Collection (How to Create a Calming Corner: Ultimate Kit) by Such a Little While
Gorgeous print-at-home social-emotional learning tools, on a budget!

#4 Separate Their Feelings From Your Own

It’s an easy mistake to describe your child’s emotions and experiences using the word “we”. “We had a big tantrum earlier over not wanting to share”. Hopefully, this is not actually the case! ๐Ÿ™‚ Remember, he or she had the tantrum. All jokes aside, as your child grows, it’s pivotal to avoid this enmeshment of emotions. Your child’s self-efficacy and autonomy in overcoming future challenges depends on it. Also consider, when a child acts out, he or she is not doing it “to you”. They are simply having a difficult time “near you”. It’s 100% normal for young children to have a tough time managing big emotions, particularly those with a budding vocabulary. It’s not personal!

#5 Acknowledge & Affirm

Phew! We are halfway through learning how to validate feelings for children and it’s finally time for us as parents to do a little talking! Start by acknowledging and affirming the feelings you have observed and/or listened to. For kids with limited communication, simply take on the role of “narrator” and share your observations. You’re mad! You don’t want to leave the park. You’ve been having fun and want to stay”. If your child can express themselves through words, this is the chance to confirm you have understood correctly. “You’re mad you have to leave the park. You feel it’s unfair because your friends get to stay. Is that right?”.

I want to share with you a favorite counseling tip. Be sure to reflect both the feeling (e.g., mad) and the context in which the feeling occurred (e.g., having to leave the park). This will greatly increase your child’s sense of validation!

#6 Match Their Tone

Any well-trained customer service representative can tell you that tone matching is a highly effective strategy for validating and calming an upset consumer. Fortunately, it’s equally successful with young children. Oftentimes adults get softer and quieter the louder and more hysterical their child becomes. Although it is the parent’s hope their hushed tone will rub off, it typically has the reverse effect. Why? The child doesn’t feel heard or understood… so they simply get louder! Yikes! Now am I asking you to scream bloody murder in public? Of course not. Take it down a few notches, but the underlying emotion in your voice should match your child’s as you deliver your words of affirmation. Use your tone to convey that you are genuinely trying to understand.

#7 Provide Calm & Clear Redirection

In young children, big feelings are often accompanied by poor decision-making. Once you have demonstrated an understanding of their emotions and perspective, they will be more likely to respond favorably to your redirection. Rather than saying what you don’t want them to do, deliver a clear, concise message on what you do need them to do. For example, instead of saying “Don’t throw your food on the floor”, say “Please keep your food on the plate”. Or rather than saying “Don’t hit your sister”, you may say “Keep your hands to yourself”. No one, especially young children, enjoys being told “no”. Nearly any redirection can be worded positively without losing meaning.

#8 Create Opportunities for Control & Choice

As a general rule of thumb, create many opportunities for your child to exercise control by offering choices, regardless of if they are struggling with a big feeling. For young children, control and choice can be as simple as, “Which shoe would you like to put on first?” (And before you know it, you’ve bypassed a getting-dressed meltdown!) Giving your child some say can go a long way in preventing the escalation of feelings and behaviors. Big emotions often stem from feeling out of control, especially among young children who have a hard time articulating their needs and wants.

At the height of their emotions, children may resist our efforts to offer controlled choices. However, after you have provided some time and space, offered a listening ear, and have spoken validating words, things should begin to calm down a bit. At this point, find an opportunity to give your child back some control as you redirect their behavior. “Which way would you like to walk home from the park? When we get there, we can have a snack. Would you like pretzels or crackers today?“.

#9 Provide Recognition & Support

As soon as your child begins to make a positive choice with their big feeling, recognize their choice. “Wow, you just said good-bye to your friends so nicely! I know you’re mad about leaving the park. I know it wasn’t easy.” (Note: Recognition is different than praise. It is about fostering self-awareness and intrinsic motivation in children, rather than about how the positive choice made us feel as parents).

Focus your attention on your child’s positive choices more so than any negative choices that preceded them. Children will seek our attention in one way or another. Recognize those behaviors you wish to see more often. ๐Ÿ™‚

#10 Encourage “I Feel” Statements

Make a regular habit of healthily talking about feelings. “I feel _________ when _________” is a great, simple script to model and teach children. Quite frankly, it’s just good practice for adults too! For example, “I feel frustrated when there’s so much traffic on our drive to school.”

This can feel pretty awkward at first for many of us, but it’s worth stepping outside of your comfort zone. Remember you are laying the groundwork for your child to identify their feelings and develop future positive coping skills!

The Last Thing You Need to Know on How to Validate Feelings

The most important thing to remember about validating young children’s feelings is that it often takes a concerted effort for it to feel natural. Amazingly, the concept of emotional intelligence (the ability to make decisions based on the emotions you accurately identify in yourself and others) was not even introduced until 1990. To no fault of our own or our parents, most of us simply did not grow up with such a candid discussion of feelings. It simply wasn’t the norm. For this reason, it can take some practice to make validating feelings part of your positive parenting routine.

As a new parent, I found myself on autopilot, always responding to whines and cries with “it’s okay!” before I could even think about it. As an experienced school counselor, I was horrified! Yet, it just kept slipping out. I sought the advice of a fellow mom. She suggested I tweak my go-to response to “it’s okay to feel ______!” every time my son experienced a big emotion. Now I consciously use it all the time and delight in the affirmation it gives my son.

Share your wisdom & be featured!

I would love to hear your favorite go-to phrase for validating children’s feelings. Please share your wisdom with our circle of support and you could be featured on suchalittlewhile.com! You will also be added to my email newsletter to receive FREE bonus resources and the latest content on empathy-driven gentle and positive parenting.

    Alright, it’s time to get out there and give your child the gifts of empathy, support, and affirmation. Remember to validate your feelings and experiences too along the way:

    Parenting is hard work.

    It’s okay to feel frustrated.

    I know you often feel tired.

    You are allowed to feel stressed.

    You are not alone.

    You got this!

    With Love & Kindness, Tana
    Hi, Iโ€™m Tana! Iโ€™m a mom, certified positive discipline parent educator, and former school counselor. Itโ€™s my mission to help you make the most of every moment with your children through effective positive & gentle parenting tools. Letโ€™s dive in!

    Join our Circle of Support!

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      30 thoughts on “How to Validate Feelings: 10 Key Parenting Responses”

      1. This is such a fantastic list of suggestions! Validating feelings is so important. I have never heard the idea of answering with the same or slightly lower level of intensity, but it makes sense. Thank you!

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      3. These are great tips and a great reminder that kids are people too, with the same feelings as anyone else. I could definitely do a better job of managing and responding to my son’s emotions. He and I have very different temperaments so it’s hard to get on the same level sometimes.

      4. This is great! Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know how to react towards my kids’ behavior, and this will be on my mind now ๐Ÿ™‚

      5. As an educator, I use many of these practices at school to validate my students’ feelings, but for some reason transitioning them in my home has been more difficult. It is especially hard to give time for my son to calm down and not become emotional or internalize my failure when he has a tantrum. Thanks for the clear steps and reminders.

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      9. You have so much great advice in here! It’s hard to validate children’s emotions sometimes, when it seems they’re mad about something silly, but it’s so important to do. I love the Feelings Book, too!

      10. Christa Stockton

        This is really wonderful. I have this conversation with my husband as well as the parents of families I work with. I think we have lost something in our society where we do not feel like children’s emotions are valid or worth validating. Even if we look at them and think their reactions are way over the top or crazy, they are still real and deserve to be allowed to feel those emotions. I think it’s so important to begin validating and teaching them to share and feel their feelings at a young age so when they are older and run into truly scary situations and feelings they will feel comfortable sharing those with us and not bury them inside for fear of being ostracized by those who are supposed to love them most!

        1. Hi Christa! I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote. It’s actually mind-boggling how this became the “norm” in our culture! I’m so glad to hear from more and more parents who are challenging this line of thinking and showing children the respect and empathy all humans deserve. ๐Ÿ™‚

      11. I love that you’re providing advice to encourage parents to hear children out! This is something so many parents don’t do even when the children are adults! Totally incorporating this into my practice. Thank you!

      12. I remember the look of disappointment and hurt the first time I accidentally hurt my childโ€™s feelings. This is such a great list to help!

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