The concept of validation comes from Marsha Linehan, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
In her 1993 book Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, Linehan notes the essence of validation:
The therapist communicates to the client that her responses make sense and are understandable within her current life context or situation. The therapist actively accepts the client and communicates this acceptance to the client. The therapist takes the client’s responses seriously and does not discount or trivialize them.
Validation is also a powerful parenting tool.
In fact, it’s one of the most important things you can do for your child, according to authors Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D, and Melissa H. Cook, LPC, in their book The Power of Validation.
Validation helps kids to feel and express their emotions, develop a secure sense of self, gain confidence, feel more connected to their parents and have better relationships in adulthood.
The authors define validation as “the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of logic or whether it makes sense to anyone else.”
Validating a child means letting them share their thoughts and feelings without judging, criticizing, ridiculing or abandoning them. You let your child feel heard and understood. You convey that you love and accept them no matter what they’re feeling or thinking.
According to Hall and Cook, validation is not the same as comforting, praising or encouraging your child. For instance, telling your child that they played great in their soccer game isn’t validating. What is validating is saying the truth, such as “It’s hard when you don’t play as well as you would like.”
“Validation is acknowledging the truth of your child’s internal experience, that it’s normal and okay to not always play your best, be the best player, or do all things perfectly or even well,” they write.
Validation is not the same as trying to help your child fix their emotions or problems. It doesn’t mean that you agree with them, either. “It just means that you understand what your child feels is real to her.”
It also doesn’t mean letting your child do whatever they want – a common misconception the authors often hear.
For instance, you validate your child’s feeling of not wanting to go to school but you communicate that the action of missing school isn’t an option.
“Don’t validate what is not valid. The feeling of not wanting to go to school is valid, but the behavior of staying home from school is not.”
The authors explain that feelings and actions are separate, which means that while feelings are not wrong, actions can be wrong.
In another example, your child is angry with his friend. Feeling anger is not wrong — it’s certainly normal — and you can validate his frustrated feelings. However, if he hits his friend, his actions are inappropriate, and they’ll have consequences.
Rules and boundaries are key. And, of course, it’s important to teach your kids how to appropriately express their anger and other emotions.
Parents also can validate their child’s behavior. Hall and Cook give the example of a 9-year-old daughter who didn’t eat much dinner because she wanted to play with her friends. After everything has been put away and cleaned up, she says she’s hungry.
Instead of saying that she can’t be hungry because she just ate, or preparing the food for her, while saying this had better not happen again, you “validate her hunger but tell her that if she is still hungry, she can prepare her own snack and clean up afterward.”
Validating your child may not be easy or feel natural, especially when they’re misbehaving and you’re stressed out. But remember that it’s a skill you can practice. And it’s an effective way to help your child name his or her feelings and know that having these feelings is perfectly OK.
Check out Karyn Hall’s popular Psych Central blog The Emotionally Sensitive Person, where she explores emotional regulation, DBT, mood management and more. For instance, here’s a piece detailing Linehan’s six levels of validation.