Validating Feelings Isn’t Working – Janet Lansbury

The practice of acknowledging our children’s feelings and struggles can provide healing, calming messages of safety and acceptance. With a genuine tone and a few words, our acknowledgments can help children share pent-up emotions, feel seen and heard, and gradually regulate, which in turn eases problematic behaviors. However, parents commonly share with Janet that validating feelings doesn’t work for their child and feels more like an exercise in frustration. Janet speaks to some of the common reasons this practice might feel less effective, what to do instead, and why we shouldn’t give up on acknowledging as a powerfully empathic relationship-building tool.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Well, today I’m going to be talking about this idea of validating, or I actually prefer the term “acknowledging” a child’s feelings, and some of the benefits of that. And mostly also I want to focus on the common challenges because I hear from many parents that this isn’t working for them. And so I would like to try to speak to that and talk about some of the common reasons that this practice isn’t as successful as we might want it to be.

Okay. So first, I just want to mention why I prefer the term “acknowledge” to “validate.” Validating feelings, that’s of course something that’s helpful to do with children, but we’re not going to really be able to get to that point a lot of the time. So it’s asking a lot of us, I think, to validate feelings that maybe seem totally unreasonable and not very valid to us in the moment. Like when our child is saying, “I don’t want you to put those peas right next to my mashed potatoes!” or something like that. It will often not make sense to us when children have the reactions that they do, especially when they have behaviors that go along with those reactions like lashing out, hitting or hurting, or other things that are really hard for us as a parent to be able to validate.

So dialing it all the way back, as my mentor Magda Gerber did, to this word “acknowledge” can make this more doable for us. I’m just acknowledging that you feel a certain way about something or that you’re upset about a certain thing, but I’m not necessarily jumping all the way to how valid you are for feeling that way.

And from there, I want to talk a little about why I even share this practice — why it matters. I think a lot of times as parents, we can feel like: Oh, someone’s telling me that I have to do this to be a good parent. Or even: If I do this thing, I’m going to be a better parent. And I would say neither one of those are reasons why I share this practice. I share it for one reason: it will make our lives easier as parents. It will make challenging behavior less frequent. It will help our child to thrive and feel calmer. And therefore, we’re going to enjoy them more, we’re going to like them more. So it’s for very practical reasons, not some ideal that we have to live up to. Please take any pressure off of yourselves to do this because somebody’s telling you that you need to do it. This is only a helpful tool to make your lives easier.

The number one thing to know about this practice as with just about everything that we do as parents or professionals with children: it’s our intention that matters. Our intention is what children are sensing. It’s not about the words.

So are we doing this acknowledging thing because we feel we should? Are we doing it because maybe if I say this, it will make my child stop doing the behavior? Understandable to want it for that reason, right? But it won’t really work that way. At least not in a sustainable way.

Are we following a script? I like to offer some scripts because I find them useful or I hope they’re useful to help illustrate a perspective. But scripts are not what I’m teaching and I think they can do us a disservice. They’re so prevalent now on Instagram and places like that where if you just say these things, then your child’s going to feel better, you’re going to end the behavior. I think that’s a setup for a defeatist feeling for parents because it doesn’t work that way. It’s not unfortunately quite that easy.

It’s ultimately a lot easier, instead of trying to think up scripts, to start speaking naturally and organically in our own voice out of this perspective that we’re practicing. So everything that I’m trying to teach is about our perceptions of our children, their behavior, and perceptions of our role as parents or caregivers, or teachers. It’s about what we’re seeing because our perceptions of any situation will then dictate how we feel about it. That’s the only way to change our feelings: to practice seeing differently. And the way we feel about it, of course, affects our tone, and our actions.

I guess we can fake things, but it is not going to work the way we want it to. Because just as with all human beings, it’s those nuances, it’s those subtexts that children are hearing and reacting to.

So we genuinely want to have our goal with acknowledging as not to shut the feelings down, although acknowledging does sometimes help children to pass through the feelings and the behavior. But rather, to welcome them to be vented all the way. And to give our child these really important messages that will ease their challenging behavior. Maybe not in that moment, but eventually there will be less of it because we’re giving children these messages: I accept you, even though I’m not going to accept the way that you’re acting on those feelings. But I accept that you want to do those things like lash out at me. And I’m here to help you stop those behaviors. But I’m not judging you as bad for feeling as you do.

Because as we all know, and I think I’ve said a lot here, we can’t change our feelings. Our feeling’s just are. We can work on shifting our perception and our perspective so that we actually do feel differently, but in the moment we can’t change any feelings that we have. Neither can our child. The difference between us and our children is that we have a much more mature level of self-regulation abilities. So we still feel the feelings, we still might feel the anger or the frustration, but we can control the way that we express those things and the way that we act on them.

Well, children have a very minimal and uneven ability to control their behaviors. That’s what they need help with. And what also helps is for them to feel: It’s okay that I feel this way. It’s okay that this feeling that I don’t control is washing over me. It’s just not okay for me to hurt somebody because of that.

So when we acknowledge, we want to try to keep it specific, only what we know for sure, which is: “You didn’t want those peas next to that mashed potato.” We don’t want to decide emotions. So if we do bring up an emotion like about the peas and the potatoes, we could say, “Oh, that’s disappointing,” but not, “You’re disappointed.” So there’s a difference there. Or we could say it as a question, “Are you really disappointed that that happened?”

I think we can all relate to someone telling us how we’re feeling. We’re going to push back on that. We’re not going to feel understood. We’re going to feel maybe angrier at that person for trying to tell us how we feel. Children are no different in that way.

Another thing is that we want to be careful about talking during a tantrum because children go off into their own little world when they’re in the middle of these, they can’t really hear what we’re saying. There are studies even that measure tantrums that show when we talk during a tantrum that can actually escalate a child’s stress response. So we want to be careful about that.

As you get more comfortable with tantrums and with acknowledging and with really allowing feelings to be, encouraging feelings to be, then if there’s a gap in what a child is expressing, you may be able to acknowledge what happened as a part of helping them to feel safe, empathizing if possible, showing them that it’s really okay with us for them to feel what they feel — all messages that alleviate behavior. Practical messages to try to give our children.

Okay. So I have a couple of examples here from parents where we can talk about some of the common ways that we can get caught up and therefore acknowledging feelings isn’t working.

Here’s one of the most common ones: we’re not believing in what we’re saying.

Children sense that. So this is actually an example from one of the many articles that I discussed in another recent podcast where they’re complaining that gentle parenting isn’t working for them. This writer says:

“Lansbury and other gentle parenting experts advise sitting next to a child during a tantrum, narrating the feelings they are experiencing. ‘You feel mad because I won’t let you stay at the playground. You are really upset.’ The theory goes that a child who hears their emotions reflected back feels seen and understood, and ideally less ornery. When I tried it, the scripts came off as forced. My daughter just wailed louder.”

Okay. So a couple of things here. I wouldn’t narrate the feelings during a tantrum, or I would do it very, very sparingly. Although I would acknowledge after the fact: “You didn’t like that I wouldn’t let you stay at the playground. That was really upsetting for you.” I wouldn’t say, “You feel mad” because that’s telling a child how they feel. And I wouldn’t try to talk to a child in the eye of the storm because all they hear is that we’re talking to them and it can feel like we’re not accepting what’s happening with them. I think that’s why these studies show that their stress response can escalate.

Again, this is the problem with seeing advice that parenting advisors give as scripts and then focusing on those scripts instead of focusing on the perception that’s implied by that script. That’s the focus that’s going to actually help us to understand what we’re doing and for it to even start to feel natural, a little bit natural. It’s never going to feel totally natural for our child to be upset and for us to just allow that.

But this writer is accurate about the theory because yes when a child hears their experience reflected back, they feel seen and understood. And she says “ideally less ornery.” Well, yeah, they feel safer, and that calms them down. They don’t feel that friction coming from us or that lack of acceptance. Or that underneath what we’re saying with this script that we are really annoyed or we’re angry, or just, Ugh, disgusted, or over it with our child. All of those are normal feelings to have, but using a script with those kinds of subtexts is not going to have the effect that we want to have, which is to help calm that child.

Alternatively, if we genuinely acknowledge our child’s feelings or their struggles, or just their point of view, what we know for sure, that is the best way to help them move through and beyond those feelings. And that’s really all we can do to help them move through. The feelings have a beginning, middle, and end. The more we can encourage them to be shared, the sooner the end will come.

Another common reason that we can get caught up with acknowledging feelings in a manner that isn’t as helpful: we’re kind of washing over the situation rather than really connecting with the specifics.

So a parent shared an example of that. They said:

“My ultrasensitive seven-year-old will get more upset if I try to label her emotions. For example, if she said, ‘I want a cookie’ in a demanding tone, and I said, ‘It sounds like you are upset right now. I’m here with you.’ She’d start yelling, ‘I’m not upset! Stop saying that I’m upset! And it might tip her over into a full meltdown. How can we show these kids that we see and hear them during these sassy, demanding moments without aggravating the situation further?”

This is a great question. Let me think of an adult example of this. Let’s say that my partner threw away something that I wanted to keep and I found what they threw away in the trash and I was upset. I said, “Hey, don’t throw that away. You threw that away.” And they said, “Oh, you’re really upset about that.” That feels like they’re just trying to wash over what’s going on instead of saying, “Oh, you didn’t want me to throw that away.” So I can see why just saying a child is upset instead of saying, “You really want more cookies” is not going to be satisfying to that child. It’s not going to be a comfortable reaction for that child to receive.

So again, this is about just going to the facts and not trying to label an emotion.

This parent’s question, they say that when they told their child that she was upset, they said it might tip her over into a full meltdown. Well, tipping her over into a full meltdown maybe needs to happen there. I would trust that if that’s happening, that that’s actually what’s behind the cookie comment that it wasn’t so much about the cookie, but about this meltdown that was brewing. That’s hard I know, but I would trust that that needs to happen. But I would still speak only to specifics and not say too much, because as children get older, and this is another thing that can get in our way, sometimes we forget to evolve with them.

A parent was just talking to me about this the other day. She said, “Wow, someone came and talked to my child with all these words that I don’t use with them. And they really seem like they understood, but I still see my child as this little baby.”

We have these snapshots in our mind as parents, but our child is constantly evolving. We want to be able to evolve with them. And what that means in terms of acknowledging is that we want to say less and less as our children get older, because it also becomes kind of shorthand. We know certain things bother our child. We don’t have to spell it out to them. They already understand language. (Whereas a one or two-year-old is still developing language.) They don’t as much need those language models, which is by the way another benefit to acknowledging with younger children. We’re giving them the language to express themselves.

An older child might feel like we’re talking down to them if we’re still saying, “You didn’t like that I said it was time to leave the park.” We would say much less to an older child like, “Oh yeah, I know. You hate to leave sometimes.”

Something that reflects the intimacy that I have with that child. Again, that’s another benefit to not trying to follow a script because there won’t be a script for that. This is between us and our child, all these nuances that have happened in our dynamic, the shorthand we have with each other, and how well we know each other.

Another benefit to acknowledging in the manner that I’m suggesting here with specifics, saying only what we know, not saying too much, not deciding emotions, not trying to talk a child down through an emotional storm, another benefit is that we have a little moment to recenter. So we’re not trying to go all the way to validating our child’s feelings. We’re just reflecting back for our own clarity. “Ah, you want me to keep playing this game with you and I’m too tired.”

So I don’t have to empathize with my child’s point of view right there, but just by stating those facts, that gives me a moment. And maybe with that moment to kind of center myself, then I can.

We don’t want to expect too much of ourselves. And we only want to do this for the right reasons — to help ourselves. Not by anybody else’s standard, not by anyone else’s expectation, just because it actually does work. Not always magically in the moment, but overall it just brings us closer and closer and helps our child feel safer and safer in all the ups and downs that they’re going to have. Every child has them.

So please be good to yourselves. Baby steps. Just be, as my friend Mr. Chazz says, an “improvenist” instead of a perfectionist. And some days we’re not even going to be an improvenist, we’re just going to be blah, or we’re going to take two steps backward or 50 steps backward. Let yourselves be in a process because, with that kind of overall intention and expectation, we really can do this.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.