“Why won’t my kid talk to me?”
One of the most common complaints parents voice while in treatment is that their teens won’t communicate with them. Parents want nothing more than to know what’s going on in their teen’s head; however, probing questions are met with silence or resistance. This is to be expected, considering teens are in a developmental stage in which they are trying to develop autonomy by pushing away from parents. However, teens have their own perspectives on why they don’t feel comfortable confiding in their parents: “they don’t listen,” “they won’t get it,” “they’ll just yell at me.” These are things we hear teens say time and time again, despite parents’ best efforts to genuinely engage their child.
Perhaps the hardest part for parents is watching their teens express intense distress, because it is scary and upsetting for parents to see their teens in pain. Parents commonly respond to intense displays of emotion by trying to problem-solve the emotion away, prompting the teen to stop feeling the emotion by “calming down” or ignoring the emotion completely. These responses are done with the best intent: to stop their child from feeling pain. However, the result is that teens do not feel heard and they assume that others around them can’t handle what they have to say. So what is a parent to do? Validate!
Validation: Is it really that simple?
Validation is the acknowledgement of another person’s thoughts or feelings. It is the communication that what someone is thinking or feeling makes sense given the circumstances. This may sound so simple, yet it is one of the most challenging skills for most parents to master.
Often parents misunderstand validation to mean complicit agreement or giving in to whatever their teens want. Validation is not agreement; we can see where someone is coming from without agreeing with their opinions or behavior. Parents may object to validation because they think their kid shouldn’t feel the way that they feel. However, there is typically a kernel of truth that parents can identify when listening carefully to what their teen is saying. For example, a teen may be angry because he/she believes he/she should be entitled to unlimited technology use and you are trying to set reasonable limits on usage. The parent may not agree with their teen’s belief that he/she should have unlimited access to technology, but a parent could understand how not having something they want very badly is frustrating and upsetting. Additionally, invalidating a teen’s emotion because we disagree with it does not encourage them to change their emotion; in fact, they feel it more intensely or experience additional anger for not being heard.
Parents may also object to validation because their teens have acted out their emotions in destructive or unacceptable ways. Parents fear that if they validate their teens in these moments, they will inadvertently reinforce bad behavior or “let them walk all over us.” You can validate your teen’s emotions without validating his/her behavior or decisions. For example, a teen punches a hole in the wall after an argument with you. Validation could be saying “I get how angry you are, arguments like this are really upsetting. And punching a hole in the wall is unacceptable.” Avoid using the word “but” while doing this, as it takes away the power of the validation.
So, what do parents do to validate?
Sometimes you do not need to say anything to validate. This may be a relief for parents who feel pressure to do validation the “right” way and fear that they may say the wrong thing. Validation can simply be actively listening. Active listening means not interrupting, demonstrating with non-verbal cues that you are genuinely interested, and staying focused on the conversation rather than being distracted with other things. Validation can look like you making eye contact with your teen, nodding, and giving them the space to speak. Remain mindful of your body language and avoid things like rolling your eyes or sighing loudly with frustration. Sometimes even using one word responses to show that you get it can be very effective. For example, if a teen is venting about how stressful a test was, you can nod and say “wow!” or “so tough.” Obviously, this must be done in a genuine manner; validation is not the time for sarcasm.
Reflect and Summarize
Observe what emotion or thought your teen has expressed in a non-judgmental manner. Reflect back the essence of what you’ve observed. If he/she does not explicitly verbalize what emotion he/she is feeling, you could make gentle assumptions by saying things such as “wow, if that happened to me I’d be really mad.” Teens will either confirm this gentle assumption or tell you if you got it wrong. Either way, this gives you more information. Maybe they respond by saying that they aren’t mad, they’re just really disappointed. Then you can validate their disappointment and have an accurate understanding of what they are feeling. Also, let your teen know that his/her emotions make sense considering what they are going through by saying things such as “I could totally see why you’d be disappointed” or “anyone in your position would feel the same way.”
Tolerate their Feelings
It may be very uncomfortable and downright painful to sit with your teen’s intense emotions. Often, we don’t validate because of our own discomfort with seeing someone upset. However, this only communicates to teens that no one can deal with what they’ve got to say, which only leads to them shoving their feelings or hiding them. Stay mindful of your discomfort and the urges to problem solve or fix for your teen. Instead of acting on these urges, sit with the discomfort and be present for your teen. Remind yourself that simply being here for them is enough right now. Resist the urge to say things like “it’s going to be OK” or “it’s not that bad.” Accept that your teen is hurting and remind yourself that it won’t be like this forever; emotions pass. At the same time, demonstrate that you take what they have shared seriously and ask them what they need from you.
What Can Validation Do?
Validation is a great tool for encouraging your teen to talk to you and communicate with you more openly. Validation builds trust in your teen that you want to hear what he/she has to say and you can handle it. Validation is also a great tool for de-escalating high-conflict situations. When teens are angry and agitated, they will often calm down when people actively listen to them rant without interrupting or arguing that they should feel differently or calm down. Validation also allows teens to identify and accept their own emotions and trust that what they are feeling is OK. If a teen’s environment responds to his/her expression of emotions with invalidation, the teen learns that what he/she is feeling is wrong. The result from this is even higher levels of consistent emotional dysregulation, low self-esteem, and seeking approval of emotions from external sources. At the end of the day, validation may not only improve your relationship with your teen but also the relationship they have with themselves.
While trying to start using validation, inevitably we will run into some challenges and blunders. Although this may be discouraging, validation takes practice and can be mastered with persistence. Be easy on yourself and validate your own emotions during this process. Parents need validation too!
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TEEN THERAPY CENTER CAN HELP!
Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.