If the child is upset about something that seems trivial or petty, or even completely irrational, we tell them… what? You’re being silly. Stop being so ridiculous. You’re so ungrateful! Maybe they are being silly - to us. How many times as an adult have you been upset with a partner, relative or friend and told that your feelings are stupid, unimportant, false? Just because the other person did not agree with you, did that really mean that your feelings and opinions had no merit? If only they would see your side, if they could see where you are coming from!
Why is it that with our children, we only offer them comfort or acceptance if we agree with the reason they are upset - and belittle them for their feelings when we don’t? I do this too, it can be hard to keep our logical opinions in check when we feel we see things so clearly and our kids do not. But putting ourselves in their place, do you think they actually see our point of view when they are so upset that they can’t even contain it?
As I have been writing these articles and discussing the topic of bullying with other parents, I have heard and read more than once, a school of thought that I frankly find a little disturbing. It is the notion some parents have that they need to toughen their kids up so bullies won't target them. These parents claim that they pick on their own kids so the kids are used to it and won't become upset if their classmates do it.
I do understand this logic and it falls in line directly with Izzy Kalman's philosophyf(1) that the reason kids get picked on is because they get upset and give the bullies the reaction that they are looking for. For the record, I completely agree with Dr. Kalman. Because bullying is fulfilling a need to dominate/control, the behavior will end once the bully realizes the person they are seeking this relationship with isn't going to give them the response they are searching for.
But to toughen something up, literally means to create calluses. That "thick skin" on the bottom of your foot or on your thumb that developed from being rubbed the wrong way repeatedly is a callus. A callus is a scar. And it's ugly. It also is temporary and will come off eventually, leaving the underlying thin skin exposed and vulnerable.
Parents can strengthen their kids from the inside - not by tearing them down repeatedly, but by building them up. This does not mean to falsely give compliments or to overinflate their egos. That can be just as bad as tearing them down can be. Giving them a grandiose sense of self can mean they later have to come to terms with being Less Than they had always been led to believe. Less Than is a concept I talk about regularly in this series. So rather than pick on your child to help them develop a thicker skin, or build them up to be egotistical, the best way to arm your child against future bullying and develop healthy peer relationships is through validation.
Validation discipline(2) is a tool parents use to give credit to their childs feelings, even if those feelings do not make sense to the adults. In a nutshell: it allows the child to feel with out judgement, shame or correction. How many times in a day do children become upset over things that seem insignificant to us, and we tell them they are being ridiculous, their problem is not a problem, get over it? Kids hear this all the time. But just because we may not think their problems are really important, to a child who's world doesn't have our grown up worries and troubles (thank goodness!), the fact that they can't have a cookie before bedtime really is a big deal.
Validation is not indulging the child, either. It is not giving them the cookie just because they are upset about it, it is simply acknowledging that they are upset about this, and allowing them to be. Letting children have their feelings and authenticating those feelings goes a long way to building a childs self-confidence. Think about a child who is constantly being told that their feelings are unimportant, silly, incorrect. They do not learn to trust their feelings! They also learn to suppress them and hide them from others, which they may wind up taking out on their peers. They also will be more likely to hide the fact that they are being bullied, because they assume that their feelings are invalid and may even be scoffed at by their parents if they share them.
Also, when a child feels validated and fully accepted by their parents and other family members, they are less likely to seek that validation from their peers. Of course, all kids do seek peer validation, but the confident child who receives ample amounts of this at home does not place quite as much importance on it.
Let's talk a minute about what is NOT validating feelings.
- Validation is not Permissive Parenting. Validation is about honoring your childs emotions, not their behaviors. "I realize you are upset that Janie took your toy, that's really hard when someone takes things from us - but it is not okay to call her names."
- Validation is not simply repeating your childs words back to them. As hard as it can be to see where your child is coming from at times - especially when you feel they are being ungrateful or bratty, validating is about letting your child have their feelings even if you don't agree with them. Confirming that they are upset as you clench your teeth and roll your eyes does not do this, even though it can be really difficult at times to suppress our impatience.
- Validation is not about fixing your childs feelings. It can be tempting to seek out ways to make your child happy when they are sad, disappointed or angry, but by doing that you are not letting them know that unpleasant emotions are acceptable. Jumping through hoops to cheer them up is something that a lot of parents do because they themselves are uncomfortable by their childs unpleasant emotions. Sadness is a normal way to feel and if we let our child experience it and honor it, they can work through it much more quickly and effectively than by our attempting to force it aside or repair it. They will get over it, if we allow them to.
- Validation does not mean that you agree with your childs feelings or ideas. You know that there is no monster in your daughters closet, and you feel no fear of going into her room in the dark. You know she has nothing to be afraid of and you tell her this. But only telling her that there is no monster and nothing to be afraid of - while completely true - doesn't make her unafraid and it doesn't acknowledge that her fear is very real to her. Telling her there is no monster while at the same time, letting her know that it's OK to be afraid sometimes, and that it's perfectly normal, can be a comfort to her, and once you open up enough to let her be afraid, you can both work together to come up with solutions that can help her overcome her fear.
When children learn to trust their emotions, they develop a strong sense of self. Childhood and adolescence is a time of great learning and constant question of how their environment works, and how they fit into their environment. A confident, validated child who is assured of their emotions can find their place more easily (and comfortably) because they are not constantly second-guessing or questioning themselves.
Children who have developed this confidence and self trust, also tend to have healthier relationships with their peers because they identify emotions more readily than than others and can recognize them more easily in classmates and friends. They are more likely to develop mindfulness, which is a self-awareness so acute that it allows them to experience without judgement. A mindful child will see her friends whispering and not automatically assume that her friends are whispering about her.
Primarily, the number one reason validation helps arm children against bullies is because it confirms their own worth their actual validity. When parents try to teach their children what to think or feel, those children will continue to look to others for this information when their parents are not available (or when they reach the stage in development that their parents advice is no longer "cool" enough). Do you really want your child looking to his friends and classmates, even the entire student body of his school to tell him what he should think and feel because he cannot trust his own ideas and feelings? As many experts and parents agree, bullies tend to target kids who are lacking in these qualities. While you can teach your child to ignore the bullies and feign self-confidence, nothing can ever compete with true and genuine self-assurance that a child develops when they are validated and taught to trust themselves.
Validation is not a cure-all or a magic remedy. But it's a good tool to begin using from an early age to help buffer a bullies effects, not to mention preventing bullying behavior in your own child.
2 The Power of Validation; by Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D. and Melissa H. Cook, LPC