3 Problems with Parental Invalidation (and What to Say Instead)
Imagine an eighth grader whose boyfriend broke up with her after only two weeks. When she tells her mom she’s scared to go to school the next day, her mother replies, “Don’t be silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She thinks this will help her daughter put the situation in perspective, but the girl actually gets the invalidating message that it’s not okay to feel what she’s feeling.
(example from Baron and Rathbone, What Works with Teens, p. 24-25)
As Dr. Kailey Spina Horan explains, “Invalidation involves discounting, delegitimizing, or communicating that someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions are an overreaction.” (See: 7 Things No Parent Should Say to Their Child at psychologytoday.com)
Three Problems with Parental Invalidation
Problem #1) It shuts down parent-child communication.
Because her mom dismissed her feelings, the eighth-grader will be less likely to confide in her in the future. She also might be dealing with a serious situation. Perhaps she was ‘sexting’ with her ex, and she’s worried about what he’ll do with the photos. Or perhaps she was relying on her boyfriend to protect her from bullies. By shutting down the conversation, the girl’s mother has no idea why her daughter is feeling so upset.
Problem # 2) Invalidation becomes the norm for other relationships.
Anybody can have a bad day, and nobody’s a perfect parent. The mother could approach her daughter after school the next day and tell her, “I’m sorry I said it was silly to worry about going to school. I didn’t mean to dismiss how you were feeling; I was just trying to reassure you that it would be OK. How did it go? Was it as bad as you expected?”
Occasional miscommunication won’t permanently damage your kids. The problem is when certain dynamics keep repeating over time.
Kids who are repeatedly invalidated by their parents learn that it’s normal to have their thoughts, feelings, and opinions dismissed. This makes them more likely to put up with bullying behavior from other people, including ‘frenemies’ and romantic partners.
Problem # 3) Kids don’t learn how to regulate their emotional reactions.
If kids grow up thinking their feelings are the problem, they won’t learn how to regulate their behavior when they’re upset. They may also internalize the invalidation and doubt their own experience, because they’ve learned that their feelings are ‘wrong’ or unacceptable. They may even turn to self-harming behavior as a way to cope with their overwhelming negative emotions.
Correct Behavior, Not Feelings
The girl who doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow needs to go to school. She doesn’t need to want to go to school tomorrow, she just needs to go.
Even if your kid does something that you really disapprove of, you can validate their feelings without condoning the behavior.
Depending on the age of your child, it might sound something like this:
“Everybody feels angry sometimes, but it’s not okay to hit people or break their toys. Let’s think of some other things you can do when you’re feeling angry.”
Or your conversation might sound something like this:
“You know I don’t approve of drug use, but I understand that you’re smoking marijuana because you feel so stressed. Could we make an appointment with a counselor who can help you with your anxiety?”
Validating your kids doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their thoughts, feelings, or behavior. Validation means that you acknowledge the reality of their experience. By expressing to them that you understand their point of view, you help your kids feel loved, accepted, and supported. This will improve their relationship with you, and also help them have healthier relationships in the future.
You’ll find more tips for successful parenting in the following posts:
Four Parenting Styles and How They Affect Kids
4 Tips for Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety
3 Tips for Talking to Teens Who Use Drugs
Strike While the Iron is Cold: The Art of Disciplining Your Young Child