Validation is one of those things we all need at points. As a mom, many of us experience moments where we want to feel appreciated for our efforts or to simply hear our emotions are valid. Kids aren’t that different, and they often look to their caregivers for reassurance.
When your child experiences big emotions, who do they trust to help navigate them? It’s probably you. If you have a toddler, although their communication skills aren’t fully developed, you’re more than likely their go-to person for validation. It probably doesn’t seem like it when they’re in the middle of a temper tantrum, but in their own way, they’re seeking validation too.
Validating your child’s emotions can help you better understand and connect with them, which can have benefits well beyond toddlerhood. According to Psychology Today, validating your child’s emotions helps build their self–esteem while reducing their defiant behavior.
The question you may have is how are you supposed to remember to emotionally validate your kid during those difficult moments? To help answer this, we spoke with Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and developmental therapist Sara Rose Whaley for some helpful tips on validating children’s emotions.
Ways You May Be Unconsciously Invalidating Your Child’s Emotions
Your hands are more than likely so full with the different moving parts of your life that you’re not always aware of moments when you’re disregarding your kid’s emotions. Sometimes it happens even despite your best efforts to be more aware and present. “There are several ways I see parents invalidating their kids’ emotions, such as telling toddlers things like, ‘You’re OK. It’s not a big deal. Don’t cry,'” said Whaley.
Learning how to help children develop their communication skills and navigate big emotions can be tough. And because we’re all human, we all losing patience with our children sometimes, which can lead to yelling or punishments when everyone’s emotions are running high. “The biggest way I see parents invalidate emotions is by punishing behaviors instead of looking at why a behavior is happening, acknowledging the feeling, and then teaching a more appropriate alternative behavior,” Whaley said.
The biggest way I see parents invalidate emotions is by punishing behaviors instead of looking at why a behavior is happening, acknowledging the feeling, and then teaching a more appropriate alternative behavior.
Regardless of age, kids sometimes have a hard time expressing themselves, which is why it’s important for you to understand why they’re behaving a certain way. “If you don’t get to the root of their behavior, it’s impossible to teach an appropriate replacement behavior,” Whaley said.
How to Become More Mindful of Your Kid’s Emotions
While older kids may be able to communicate a little better, toddlers haven’t learned how to express their emotions just yet. Sometimes their big emotions involve frustration that results in behaviors like screaming, kicking, hitting, or biting. As infuriating or exasperating as that can be, Whaley said to try to ask yourself in the moment, “Why is this behavior or emotion happening?”
Whaley calls this “awareness of the why.” She also wants you to try not to think of your kid’s emotions or behavior as bad. “There are inappropriate behaviors, but they’re not bad,” she said.
Choosing to slow down and look at something objectively when your child is experiencing big feelings isn’t always easy. Try to remain non-judgmental and curious to uncover the why behind the behavior or emotion.
Ways to Encourage Open Expression of Emotions
It’s one thing to think about validating your kid’s emotions, but you may be wondering what that looks like in practice. Whaley shared four tips she teaches her clients to help them encourage an open expression of emotions in their households:
- Show your emotions openly. As a mom, you’re allowed to have and show your feelings. However, the way you show them is what matters. For example, if you’re mad say, “Mommy is feeling really mad. I’m going to count to 10 and take some deep breaths to calm down.” This shows your child that emotions are OK and that there are appropriate ways to express them.
- Acknowledge your kid’s emotions, without punishing them. This can look like you saying, “I can see you’re really mad. Your sister/brother knocked over your tower. That would make me mad too.”
- For toddlers, you can correct inappropriate expressions of emotions while teaching a replacement behavior. For example, try saying something like, “I know you’re upset. It’s OK to be upset. It’s not OK to hit me. You can stomp your foot or yell,” helps you model the replacement behavior you’d like your toddler to follow.
- Practice replacement behaviors when your toddler is calm. This is so important and rarely done by parents. It’s crucial to practice when everyone is calm.
Another tool Whaley shares with her clients is something known as “step behaviors.” This involves gradually teaching kids how to appropriately express their emotions. “It’s unrealistic to expect your kid, especially a toddler, to go from hitting or kicking to calmly expressing their emotions,” Whaley said.
Step behaviors may include telling your kid to hit a pillow instead of people, practicing counting to 10, taking deep breaths with them, etc. The goal is to show your kid that you’re able to be patient while you help show them it’s OK to express their emotions without hurting themselves or others.
How to Exercise Patience and Grace
You may be thinking, “This sounds great, but putting everything into practice may not be that easy.” Truthfully, it won’t be. Working on validating your kid’s emotions may be a new concept for you and your household, and it may even be triggering if you don’t feel your emotions were validated as a child. Whaley said, “First of all, know you ARE going to mess up. You are going to lose control of your emotions at some point, but perfection isn’t the goal.”
In order to create a space where you’re not only able to exercise patience and grace for your child but also for yourself, you have to find a way to tap into consistent self-care to recharge. “It’s almost impossible to be the patient parent you want to be if you’re constantly running on empty,” Whaley said. Here are a few ways you can exercise grace and patience:
- When you lose control, apologize to your child.
- Repeat this mantra to yourself: “I’m a great mom who made a mistake.”
- When you’re calm, look at the situation from a curious perspective so you can understand your own behavior and emotions. Ask yourself if you were tired, hungry, or stressed. Understanding what was going on for you will help you find patterns in your behavior and be better able to control it in the future.
- To take things a step further, you can imagine how you would like to behave in the future.
We know it’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of mom guilt and shame, but you don’t have to stay there. As Whaley mentioned above, being in tune with your emotions and behaviors can help you feel better prepared to help your child navigate theirs.