Having a tough time shifting to respectful parenting practices? Dr. Nanika Coor gives tips for validating your child in ways that cultivate mutual respect, strengthens trust, and inspires voluntary cooperation.
Like many parents who want to shift from control-based parenting to collaboration-based parenting, you likely just want things to get better, to feel easier. You want both you and your child to feel good about your interactions. When you use some respectful parenting tools that you’ve learned, your child responds with less resistance than usual—and you feel encouraged! Maybe things can change!
When the next challenging situation arises, however, that same approach doesn’t result in cooperation. Since she's back to being the same challenging kid she was last week, you decide that clearly this respectful parenting stuff doesn’t work with your kid. Your kid needs tough love, not this coddling, respectful stuff!
I hear you! It can seem that way. But maybe what’s happening is that your child just needs more instances of her voice being heard, felt, and considered by you. You could take more opportunities to show her that putting her guard down with you is a safe thing to do. Then she could begin to see that letting you know how she feels can be fruitful and actually lead to getting her needs met. When she’s able to string together multiple experiences of you validating her emotions, she can start to trust that this it’s the new normal.
When it comes to improving the parent-child dynamic, there's only one person you have any real control over: yourself.
The challenge is that respectful parenting requires a genuine desire to understand your child’s perspective and an underlying consciousness of acceptance, especially when they’re behaving in challenging ways. Otherwise, you’re just parroting "respectful" phrases while still trying to control and change your child—just in a nice way. When it comes to improving the parent-child dynamic, there's only one person you have any real control over: yourself.
Changing your behavior changes the “dance” between you and your child. Some kids, feeling confused by this change, will try to reestablish the old dance that they know best. They need repeated experiences of your commitment to your new dance steps. The problem is that it can be easier to white-knuckle through your child’s expressions of emotion than it is to really show acceptance.
Today, I’m talking about the concept of validation. Here are 9 ways to express that you are truly and deeply interested in your child’s perspective—even when you don’t agree—that can help you begin to rebuild the trust you need to send your relationship with them in a new direction.
1. Give full attention to your child
Put your technology, your book, or your activity aside for the moment. Let your child know that what they’re saying or doing is important, visible, and relevant to you by being in the moment with them.
2. Focus on your child’s “why” rather than the “what”
It takes a lot of practice to hold your child’s version of “the facts” or “the truth” as valid, especially when your ideas of both may be quite different. It’s important to remember that you can disagree with what your child’s opinions and behaviors are, while also empathizing with them.
Clearly communicate that it’s understandable to you why they believe their opinions or choose those behaviors given their personality, their physiological state, and their past or current situation, among other factors.
3. Reflect back what you hear, avoiding any statements of judgment
Communicate that you’ve accurately heard what your child is saying, and be open to correction. Validating your child requires that you're able to listen, observe, and describe what you’re hearing and seeing your child communicate without adding your own opinions and interpretations.
If your child says in a very sad voice, “He hates me!” You might reflect, “You seem really sad and pretty convinced that he hates you, huh?” And you’d hold back the desire to say things like, “Of course he doesn’t hate you! You just hung out this weekend and had a great time!”
4. Give voice to the part of your child’s experience that they’re not telling you with words
Observe your child’s facial expression, body language, tone of voice, or current behavior. Given what you already know about them, what are these nonverbals telling you about what’s going on for them? Describe out loud your guess about the feelings, thoughts, or wishes you’re seeing in them by saying things like, “It seems like you’re really disappointed that we didn’t get here in time to meet your friends.” Be open to being corrected if you didn’t guess quite right.
5. Be aware of your own non-verbal communication
Notice what you’re saying with your body language. Make sure your verbal tone, body posture, facial expressions, and eye gaze are communicating acceptance rather than judgment. Rolling your eyes, sighing emphatically, sucking your teeth, walking away, talking under your breath, or saying “I don’t want to hear it!” communicate dismissal and invalidation.
6. Find the “grain of truth” in your child’s perspective or situation
When we validate our child’s experiences, we’re verifying the facts of a situation. For example, while getting dressed for the day, if your child says they don’t want to wear the new pair of shorts you purchased because they prefer a longer length, you can validate that you hear and understand this by simply offering them a longer pair of shorts.
7. Look for how your child’s thoughts, words, and actions make sense, in light of previous or current circumstances
Show your understanding that their actions are reasonable and effective given the present situation or what their goals are. “It’s normal for you to be nervous on the first day at your new school, especially after your first day at camp this summer was so tough.”
8. Acknowledge that all of your child’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors have a cause, even if you don’t know exactly what the cause is
If your child eats the cookies you were saving for tomorrow, you can acknowledge that the urge to eat cookies is hard to ignore and it can be hard to stop ourselves from doing really pleasurable things.
9. Treat your child as reasonable and capable
It can be tempting to talk down to your child because you believe them to be too inexperienced or fragile. Instead, speak to them as an equal and whole person with real and valid feelings and experiences.
Your child may test your resolve. Doubling down on validation can help.
It takes a lot of courage and effort to pivot to a respectful parenting approach if you’ve been raised with or have historically used punitive discipline. Even as you shift your approach, your child might be skeptical, not trusting that things have really changed.
Your child may test your resolve. Doubling down on validation can help. Practicing validation shows your child that you are trying hard to understand what’s important to them, even when you don’t approve or agree.
If you reflect back to your child not only the words you're hearing, but also the feelings you're picking up on that they don't say directly, it will help your child feel felt by you on a deep level.
And, of course, validation is a two-way street! Validating your child not only shows them that you value them enough to try to understand how their experiences make sense from their point of view, but it has the added bonus of potentially making your child more open and responsive to your concerns and point of view!