My youngest son feels aaalll the feelings, intently and in five minute interludes. As the mostly sensible adult that I am, it’s easy for me to side-eye these emotional displays. I understand that Mickey will be right back after a brief commercial. “It’s ok,” I’d respond to my toddler’s emotional upheaval.
Until Big A’s speech therapist advised that I drop those two words from my parenting vocabulary. By “reassuring” the boys that everything was fine, I was inadvertently driving home the message that their concerns weren’t important. It’s confusing to be told everything is fine when you’re upset. Toddlers are left thinking, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep freaking out about things that aren’t important?”
Emotional validation is acknowledging rather than dismissing feelings. Practicing emotional validation with my toddlers has made a huge difference in the way they handle their big feelings.
What Emotional Validation Is
Emotional validation is simply allowing emotions. It is acknowledging feelings without judgment, advice, or expectations. When Mickey disappears, I now say, “It’s hard when commercials come on” or “Little A is upset Mickey went away.”
Emotional validation is a variation of the “don’t give advice, just listen” meme/emotional development plot point in a Real Housewives friendship. You’ve shared that meme or felt that way, haven’t you? Feeling emotionally validated is essentially feeling understood.
Simply saying, “I hear what you’re saying, you’re upset because…” conveys respect, dignity, and worth to the person being spoken to. It says that their feelings matter; that they’re worthy of discussion and examination. This validation feels good, whether one is three or sixteen or thirty two or fifty seven years old.
What Emotional Validation Isn’t
Emotional validation isn’t agreeing with or changing the emotion. It isn’t fixing the problem. Emotional validation doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation provoking the outburst will change.
In other words, just because Little A is mad that he doesn’t get candy, doesn’t mean he gets candy. That’s the easy way to stop his tears. And it isn’t stopping his tears I’m interested in anyway. All I’m doing is naming the feeling: “You’re mad that you can’t have a treat right now. That must be hard.” Then I redirect him. Or go about my merry way. But nothing changes about the situation.
It seems that acknowledging the feelings seems to (somewhat) quell the feelings.
Why Emotional Validation Is Important
Helps Toddlers Regulate Emotions
Practicing emotional validation gives toddlers access to a language of feelings. You can’t regulate what you can’t name, mmkay? If Little A doesn’t understand that it’s anger he’s feeling about sharing, how can he learn to control his anger so as not to hit his brother?
Can you imagine being a tiny human and never having experienced big emotions like anger, jealousy, or shame? What would you think was happening to you the first few times those emotions washed over you?
Identifying a toddler’s feelings aloud makes them feel less alone. When they throw a fit and feel out of control, there we are, being all calm and validating: “Sometimes I act out when I’m tired too! Let’s try this instead.”
Monkey see, monkey do. When caregivers model emotional validation, children learn to do the same for their peers. It’s a ripple effect that can help the whole playground.
Less Indignation=More Listening
It’s hard to feel both understood and indignant, isn’t it?
When I feel misunderstood I just want to explain myself. It’s hard to listen when I’m busy writing explanatory scripts in my head. It’s the same with toddlers, just with a less coherent script. When I acknowledge that Little A is mad, he doesn’t feel the need to keep screaming to showcase that. The solutions I’m offering are better received.
Again-emotional validation is simply acknowledging feelings. With our toddlers, I tend to offer emotional validation and then redirect, distract, or ignore. I do not change the situation or give in to demands. If one of the boys acts out in response to their feelings they are redirected and/or disciplined accordingly.
- “You are sad, can Mama help?”
- “You’re mad because you don’t want to share your toy.”
- Isn’t it hard to wait/share/not get what you want?”
- “It’s ok to be mad, it’s never ok to hurt anyone.”
- “New things can be scary.”
- “I wish we could get new things sometimes, too.”
- “This is different, that can feel weird.”
- “We cry when we feel sad.”
Teach Calm To Stay Calm
Hey, you’re gonna get mad at your kids. Cuz they can be little hellions. Model yourself identifying and dealing with your own feelings of frustration towards them: “I’m mad at you for biting me and I’m taking five.”
There is such a thing as emotional contagion. By staying calm, accepting, and validating your own emotions, you can encourage kids to do the same.
Gotta See It To Believe It
I know. It sounds so simple. But as with most life principles/advice, this parenting tip is simple, not easy. And its effect is staggering. We could see the difference in our toddler’s responses the very afternoon we learned about emotional validation in action.
As I do with all amazing things, I told everybody. My mom, all moms, lollygaggers in the self check out lanes. My mom was all, “That’s great, Megan!” and the lollygaggers were all, “Cool story, strange lady!”
But my mom’s mouth dropped open when she witnessed Little A’s next tantrum over video call. He dropped to the floor, screaming, per usual. Until I said, “Little A is upset.” Then he picked himself up off the floor and went about his business. The moms at playgroup saw the same thing and were similarly astounded. It’s crazy! Even a year and a half year old responds positively to feeling understood.
What are some of the best parenting tips you’ve received? Let me know in the comments below! Did you find this article helpful? Share it!