The Importance of Validating Children’s Feelings
As we are moving through (and hopefully out) of pandemic life, parents see more and more feelings of all kinds surfacing in themselves and their children. As the community starts to open up, many unreconciled feelings begin to sprout and become more present, such as feelings of being socially overwhelmed after being more isolated for so long or frustrated with life being different. As we talk about these feelings in adults, it is even more imperative that we recognize that all of these feelings exist in our children. They are not as verbal, articulate, and as equipped as adults to cope with these feelings.
To children, feelings can feel big and unmanageable. Even feelings deemed “positive” like excitement can feel scary at times. As a result of these feelings, it is common for children to act out behaviorally or turn inward and isolate themselves. These feelings seem unmanageable or unrecognizable. Research has found that emotion regulation does not fully develop until one is in one ’20s. With all this in mind, it seems to make more sense that children are known to overreact or engage in meltdowns when something does not go as planned; their body is constantly being taken over by new feelings all time. And most of the time, the feelings pop up with no warning!
To become better able to cope with and manage their emotions, they need to understand what feelings are and experience what it feels like to gain control of them. The best way they learn about these feelings is to be validated by caring adults. They need to hear that their feelings are typical and do not view them as foreign invaders in their bodies; these feelings are not scary. Depending on the age, parents can help children label the feeling and talk about it at the moment:
- “You are so mad you cannot climb on the counter.”
- “Maybe your body is feeling nervous as I see you’re super wiggly as we wait for the doctor.”
- “It is common to feel excited and nervous together when we try new things.”
- “You look like you are feeling left out playing ball by yourself.”
Think back to a recent incident where you had intense feelings about something. Imagine if someone told you that you needed to stop having that feeling or it was not reasonable to have that feeling because they saw the situation differently. What are you more likely to do: (a) engage in dialogue and problem solve or (b) disengage or become combative? Most likely, you would feel unseen and less likely to engage in problem-solving and maybe even start a new argument. Feeling that way is the same for children and teens. They know the feelings are happening; they are just in need of support in navigating them. Sometimes it helps if caretakers take on the role of curious explorers of these big feelings right along with our little ones.
Another reason to support our children as they experience these feelings is to help strengthen the parent-child relationship. Humans thrive on connectedness and feelings of being seen and understood; children constantly search for validation of connection. When this does not occur, we tend to go into “self-preservation mode” and present in various ways. For children, defiance or emotional distancing is seen, which is why validating these feelings early on in childhood helps even more. Not only does it start to help children learn emotion regulation, but it helps with attachment and connection between caregiver and child.