As a counselor, I often walk the balance of overhearing things people say and wishing that I could talk with them to teach them a more helpful response. I know the statements that make me wince are often well-intentioned, but they often are misinformed and unhelpful. I also know that walking up to people to correct them or educate them about a more empathic response would cross the social norm boundaries that we live by, so I am using this space to share what I wish I could have said when I overhear things that make my insides boil.
A while back, I was at the park with my boys when I heard a mom say something to her son that made me cringe. Allow me to explain what happened. There was a little boy (I’m guessing probably 2.5 years old) trying to cross the bouncy bridge–the ones that move a little bit when you walk on them. The bridge has to be crossed before you can get to the big slides or some of the other play equipment (like the cool firetruck). The boy was clearly afraid (or so I am assuming). It seemed like maybe this year he was finally big enough to play on the bigger toys, and when he noticed that the bridge might move under his feet, he froze. He stood by the bridge hanging onto the side railing not moving. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just cross the bridge. You’ll be fine,” said his mom. The boy immediately started crying. The mom climbed up on the play set and tried to get him to cross the bridge by grabbing his hand and continuing to tell him that there was no reason to be afraid. What followed was a meltdown–the kicking, screaming, fully upset kind. I know she was trying to be encouraging and trying to help her son to experience the other fun things at the park, but what she said actually backfired on her. Counselor Amanda wished that she could pull the mom aside and talk with her for a moment, but Mom Amanda knew that it was not her role at that time.
If you are feeling angry or scared and someone tells you that you have no reason to feel that emotion, does that ever help? Rarely does someone telling me that I have no reason to feel the way I am feeling improve the situation. In fact, it usually makes me even more upset. The same is true with kids. There was a legitimate reason that little boy felt scared, and whether that mom knew it or not, telling him that there was nothing to be afraid of wasn’t actually helping her son’s fear go away.
I wish that I could have coached her to say something like this to her son instead: “I can see that you’re feeling afraid right now. That bridge looks big and scary, and it moves, so that makes it even scarier! It’s okay to feel afraid. You can stand where you are or stay by me until you feel better. You’ll know when you are ready to cross the bridge.” And after coaching her to say those words, I wish I could have gone on to explain the power of validation to her.
Fear (or anger and sadness for that matter) can be a big, overwhelming emotion for kids, and when we, as adults, recognize the emotion and normalize it for the kids in our lives, the emotion becomes a little bit less overwhelming. Validation is the key here. When children feel understood, they will likely feel more in control. Validation helps them understand it’s okay to feel the way they feel, and it helps to defuse the intense emotional state the child is experiencing on the inside. Validation does not mean a parent is affirming the emotions, and it does not mean that the parent is condoning the accompanying behaviors. It simply means the parent sees and understands the child’s emotional experience. Essentially, parents are communicating “I can see that you are feeling a certain way. It’s okay.” In validation, parents recognize the inner state of the child’s experience while also conveying acceptance of the child, and most of the time, this decreases the intensity of the emotion.
On the other hand, telling a child to not feel a certain way creates confusion. Emotions serve a purpose, and if they are not acknowledged, they tend to escalate. Parents who try to correct, negate, or deny the emotion a child experiences will often find that the emotion becomes more intense. This was exactly what happened at the park. I imagine the outcome would have been so different if that mom at the park had validated her son’s emotions instead and let him make his own choice about when he felt ready to walk across the bridge.
At times, you’ll likely find yourself to be in the same situation as the mom at the park. You mean well for your child and want to encourage him or her but your response does not actually validate the emotion experienced. There’s power in validation. Experiment with it and find out for yourself!