Many parents struggle with determining the most effective way to respond when their child is distressed and provide validation. Sometimes what might feel like the best response can actually make the situation worse. The scenario below highlights such a situation:
David is 15 years old and later his parents have noticed him acting out in an angry and controlling manner. He tends to resist any direction from them saying ‘I’m going to do what I want to do’ and they have gotten feedback from his teachers that he is being confrontational in school. Most concerning to his parents are the ways that David has been interacting with his friends. He yells at them when they don’t do what he wants and he displays aggressive behavior whenever he is around them. He recently found out that his friends planned a trip to an amusement park and excluded him on purpose. David now expresses a great deal of sadness and anger.
In situations like this, parents have some instinctive responses, which although they may feel right at the time, may not be helpful. Because most parents have a righting reflex, they may be initially dismissive of their child’s feelings in such a situation. For example, David’s parents could say something like ‘You don’t even like the amusement park’ with the intention of making him feel better, but ultimately disregarding his feelings. Additionally, his parents could take a distraction approach and make the suggestion that they take him to the amusement park as a compromise. In contrast to these instinctive corrective actions, David’s parents could blame him for the circumstances leading to his negative feelings: ‘We’ve seen the way you’ve been treating your friends and we don’t blame them for leaving you out’. While all of these responses can be understood from a parental perspective, they ultimately leave David feeling misunderstood.
An alternative communication approach that David’s parents could take in this situation would be to try to validate his feelings before looking to solve his problem. To execute validation effectively, David’s parents would reflect their understanding of his feelings: ‘We can see why that would be upsetting to you’ or ‘I can imagine that happening to me and I would feel horrible’. As a communication strategy, validation has been found to help decrease tension and increase harmony in families. It is important to note that validation does not indicate agreement: on the contrary, it means that despite a disagreement of opinions or perceptions, an understanding of feelings can be communicated. Since this approach can help decrease the emotionality of a situation, David might be more open to listening to feedback about his behavior after he feels that his emotions are valid. By incorporating validation into communication with their children, parents can promote the dialectical principles of acceptance and change into their efforts to raise healthy children.
Effective communication is a topic incorporated in the DBT-Parenting Skills group provided at Specialized Therapy Associates. Should you have any interest in enrolling in the DBT-Parenting Skills group, please call 201-488-6678 for details.