Validation (noun): recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.
Notice, it does not say that a person’s feelings or opinions are right or appropriate. Instead it uses the adjectives valid or worthwhile.
I began my experience in residential treatment believing adolescents simply needed a strong hand and firm boundaries. By the end, I learned youth truly need someone to listen, someone to trust with scary feelings. Don’t get me wrong- boundaries are important, but they must be coupled with validation to qualify as relationship-based treatment. Let me provide an example of the power of this duo:
Each week at residential treatment, one girl had the heavy responsibility of taking laundry to the laundry room. If this was not done, the responsible girl would bear the wrath of all others as no one would have clean clothes. Shannon* became verbally upset when her roommate failed in this most important duty. She immediately reacted to her anger by letting her roommate know exactly how she felt. Staff stepped in to stop the verbal altercation and we asked Shannon to take a moment on her own to calm down. After calming down, I took some time to process her feelings with her.
I explained to her, “Shannon, I can understand why you are so upset. I would be upset as well if I did not have clean clothes for a week. Can you explain some of your feelings to me?”
Shannon proceeded to explain how frustrated she was, “I just got so angry when I found out Mary* didn’t take the laundry again. Does she think that I can just wear the same underwear for another week? I mean, I know I shouldn’t have acted that way but my anger just took over.”
We were now at a place that we could talk about how her feelings were valid, but her reaction to these feelings could be improved. The short moment I took to validate Shannon allowed a growth inspiring conversation.
Imagine, however, if the conversation did not start out with validating her emotions. Imagine if instead, I went straight to lecturing her on the inappropriate reaction to the situation. That likely would have led into a very defensive exchange and essentially would have communicated to this girl that I did not care about her or her feelings.
This experience inspired my graduate research of childhood validation. Of those who participated in my study, 65.2% often sought validation from a parental figure as a child but only 39.1% felt that they often received it. That means 60.9% did not feel validated to the extent they sought as a child. I also discovered that participants viewed parental validation as not only communication, but as support, particularly of achievements.
In a nutshell, my experience and research illuminated that feelings and emotions are not wrong or right, they simply are. How we react to them can certainly be inappropriate, but it takes a deeper dive to understand the emotions underlying behaviors we often seek to correct. So next time you find you need to discipline a child or hold boundaries with a teenager, begin with validation.
*All names have been changed