Validating your child’s emotions can help them develop emotional intelligence and resilience. Here’s what to know.
You’re in the store and your four-year-old sees a toy, grabs it, and tries to toss it in the cart. You bend down, explain calmly that we’re not buying toys right now, and … your child just loses it: tears, screaming, kicking — a whole big tantrum, right there in public.
As parents, chances are, we’ve all either had this exact experience — or one very close to it. And in those moments, it is so tempting to just tell your child to “stop crying” or “shush.” After all, you want people to stop watching you and your child.
But here’s the thing. Your child at that moment isn’t trying to embarrass you or make a scene. Instead, they’re feeling a big emotion — disappointment — and they’re not completely sure how to express it.
So at that moment, consider validating your child’s feelings — even if you’re not going to change your mind about the toy. It can be very beneficial for your child’s emotional well-being and development.
Validating your child’s feelings means acknowledging how your child is feeling in the moment — whether it’s happy, sad, angry, or some other big emotion — without judgment, expectation, or comment on what they “should” be feeling instead.
“Validating is not fixing, correcting, teaching a lesson, or providing advice,” explains Annia Palacios, a licensed professional counselor licensed in Texas and Florida and owner of the online practice, Tightrope Therapy.
For parents and caregivers, validating your child’s feelings is less about getting the “objective facts” about what caused them to feel this way, and more about helping kids feel seen, heard, and understood.
Validating your child’s feelings involves understanding the situation from their viewpoint and empathizing with them about what they experienced, says Laura Fonseca, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in working with children and adolescents in Missouri.
Emotional validation teaches your kids that feeling and expressing their emotions is OK. Parents who validate their kids’ emotions model that it’s natural to sometimes feel hurt, scared, or sad, says Palacios.
Secure attachment and trust
It can also build trust between you and your child, creating greater intimacy and a secure attachment.
“When you validate a child’s experience, you are letting them know they have a safe space to talk and process what they experienced,” says Fonseca. This security can aid kids in developing coping skills and learning to trust themselves as they grow up, she adds.
The benefits of emotional validation can also help build emotional intelligence in children.
“Understanding one’s own emotions promotes healthy psychological development by teaching a child to pay attention to their emotional states,” explains Kate Monahan, a developmental psychologist and certified family life educator.
Monahan says that when emotional validation is coupled with compassionate guidance and conversations with parents, children can also learn coping strategies for dealing with their emotions and expressing how they feel.
Over time, this can lead to less:
- emotional dysregulation
“Children have the same emotions as adults, [but] most children lack the verbal skills to express what they need from their caretakers — that is why many children act out,” explains Fonseca.
The more parents and caretakers validate your child’s feelings and emotions when they are upset, the less likely they may be to act out behaviorally, she continues.
Self-esteem and resilience
Through these coping skills, children can build self-esteem and an emotionally balanced experience of reality, as well as the coping skills they need to deal with difficult things.
This can help them become more — which may lower the risk of developing depression and anxiety, according to 2016 research.
Emotional validation can instill confidence in kids to work productively through their own emotions and walk away from unhealthy or harmful situations.
“Children internalize the messages about emotions they receive from caregivers,” explains Jessica Stern, a child psychologist and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches courses on parent-child relationships, attachment, and child development at the University of Virginia.
Modeling behaviors and internal dialogue
The way parents talk to children often influences their internal dialogue.
Children often learn to respond to emotions in themselves and others in similar ways to what parents and caregivers model, such as with:
The consequences of not validating our kids’ feelings can lead to insecure attachment.
According to Stern, insecure attachment can be a key risk factor for:
These conditions can begin in childhood and continue through adolescence and into adulthood.
Poor coping skills
Children who don’t receive emotional validation often learn to deal with difficult emotions in ways that can be negative or harmful, says Stern, which can include:
- externalizing or “acting out”
- “numbing” emotions through social media, food, or substance use
It is possible to learn to be better at validating your kid’s feelings and emotions — even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Here are 6 tips to consider.
1. Take a deep breath before reacting
Kids might need you when you’re in the middle of doing something, which can be frustrating or distracting. Interruptions might lead you to react in a way you wish you didn’t, explains Palacios.
Rather than acting on your emotional impulse, she advises, “first, take a deep breath, pause, and check your body language.”
Sometimes, just taking a moment to check in with yourself can allow you to separate yourself from what you weredoing, let go of your frustration, and be emotionally present with your child.
2. Learn about mindful parenting
Mindful parenting is a parenting practice that helps you better learn to be in the moment with your child, rather than worrying about the past or future.
This approach can help you be more curious, kind, discerning, and accepting of your child’s emotions and actions because you’ll be more in tune with them. Mindful parenting can also help you learn to be more empathetic and actively listen to your child.
3. Name and connect
One way to validate your child’s feelings better, says Monahan, is to practice a strategy called “name and connect.”
To do this, simply start by naming the emotion you see your child grappling with, and then connect it with a reason you’re observing.
For example, if your child is getting frustrated with a toy, you might respond with, “you are so frustrated with those blocks, then see if they agree.
4. Accept the feeling
Accepting your child’s feelings could be as simple as sitting with them, Stern explains. “Your accepting presence is powerful.”
Avoid trying to change your child’s feelings to what you think they should be in the situation, she advises.
You can also try reflecting back what they say to you with statements like, “that makes sense,” or “that sounds really hard.”
5. Ask open-ended questions
Asking open-ended questions can encourage your child to try to find the words for what they’re feeling. And if possible, says Fonseca, try to focus less on what happened and more on what the experience was like forthem.
“Ask them to share the experience from their point of view and empathize with them,” she says. “Let them know that you’d feel similarly if that happened to you.”
In cases where your child may have been in the wrong, try to hear them out before you do anything else.
“You can help reframe the situation once you hear all points of view, but [still] acknowledge their feelings are real and understandable,” she adds.
6. Work to repair the relationship
A key part of emotional validation is taking action to repair relationships if their feelings arise from a conflict with you, another family member, or a friend, says Stern.
For example, if your child feels excluded from their older sibling’s game, consider asking the older sibling to apologize and find a way to include them.
Or, if you caused them to be upset, you can say, “I see that I’ve upset you and I understand why you feel that way.” Then you can listen to them, validate them, and work to try to heal the anger. Apologies — if warranted — can also go a long way in that healing.
Examples of validating statements
- “I hear you”
- “I’m here with you”
- “You’re not alone”
- “We’ll get through this together”
- “That makes sense”
- “It’s OK to feel this way”
- “Want to tell me about it? I’m listening”
- “Thank you for telling me”
- “It must be hard to feel this way”
- “I’m sorry you’re upset with me”
- “I’m sorry this happened to you. Would you like a hug?”
Validating your child’s feelings can be very beneficial for their development and mental health. It can help them feel heard, understood, and supported — which can:
- teach emotional regulation
- build trust
- foster resilience
- enhance their relationships into adulthood
It’s important to remember that you’re human, too. So, if you sigh out of frustration or get embarrassed at a tantrum, don’t worry. You’re not going to “ruin” them over one incident.
“As a parent myself, I know from first-hand experience that we are not always going to get it right — and that’s OK,” says Palacios. “When it comes to validation, I encourage parents to try to validate their kids’ experiences more often than not as a general goal.”