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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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?
- “Oh, that’s no big deal! You shouldn’t feel frustrated. You’re fine!”
- “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). Invite them to share with you using words (if developmentally able). If your child has limited verbal communication skills, but a general understanding of feelings, you might invite them to identify their emotion by pointing to visuals in a chart or book. One of my favorites is The Feelings Book by Todd Parr. Remember, active listening requires more than just your ears- listen with your eyes, show them you are 100% present and are taking in their point of view.
Visual tools can be quite helpful to identify and validate children’s feelings, particularly for those with limited verbal communication skills.
#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! 🙂 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. 🙂
#10 Model “I Feel” Statements
Make a regular habit of healthily talking about your feelings. “I feel _________ when _________” is a great, simple script to model for 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”, or “I feel so happy when you clean up the first time I ask.” 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.
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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 got this!