Podcast: What Is Validation and Why Is It So Important?
Jenn talks to Dr. Blaise Aguirre about the importance of validating the thoughts and feelings of kids and teens. Blaise provides examples of what validation looks and feels like in kids and teens, shares ways to support our loved ones’ thoughts and feelings, and answers audience questions about learning how to validate feelings at any age.
Blaise Aguirre, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mentalization-based treatment (MBT) for borderline personality disorder and associated conditions. He is the founding medical director of McLean’s 3East continuum of care.
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
Hi, folks. Good morning, good afternoon or good evening to you wherever you’re joining us from, whatever time it is there, whatever the weather looks like, thanks so much for joining us.
We’re going to talk today about validation of thoughts, emotions, and more in kids and teens. I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital, and I’m joined today by Dr. Blaise Aguirre.
And I’m just going to throw this out there. Everybody wants to be seen and heard. Ultimately, at its core, that’s what validation is. It’s a way to let someone that we care for know that we understand them, and in turn it can actually strengthen our connection with loved ones over time.
So when it comes to kids and teens with validation, how do we help them recognize their feelings and how can we validate them, even if we don’t agree with them? What are some of the ways that we can validate thoughts and emotions in our kids, teens, and even young adults?
And almost most importantly, is it ever too late to start validating how others feel? So over the next hour-ish, Blaise and I are going to talk about all of that.
We’re going to talk about what validation looks and feels like in those populations, how we can support the thoughts and feelings of our loved ones, how we can validate others, really at any age, and more. So I’d love to introduce Blaise.
If you are unfamiliar with him, Dr. Aguirre is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in dialectical behavior therapy and mentalization-based treatment for borderline personality disorder and associated conditions.
In addition, he is the founding medical director of McLean’s 3East continuum of care, which is an array of programs for teens that uses DBT, which is dialectical behavior therapy, to target self-endangering behaviors and the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.
So Blaise, thanks so much for joining me again. It’s always so nice to see a familiar face. I want to get started just by asking right off the bat, why is it so important for kids to feel validated by their parents or caregivers?
Blaise: Yeah. So, but before even that question, what the heck do we mean by validation?
I mean, certainly growing up as a child, I’d never heard of this term validation, and as a parent, I’d never heard of this term validation, and, you know, I remember many times growing up where I would have one or two friends that my parents were very skeptical of me having.
They would think that they were bad influences or things like that. And I really, really liked these kids. I mean, I thought they were funny and they’re adventurous and stuff like that. But my parents would say, “No, no, they’re bad kids. You shouldn’t be hanging out with them.”
And then, you know, growing up and becoming a parent myself and then sort of saying, “Well, you’re making the right choices,” to my own kids and stuff like that. So this idea of validation came from the discussion of, you know, dialectical behavior therapy, of the so-called invalidating environment.
And again, I had never, ever heard of this term. So what is this concept of validation? And certainly when parents leave 3East, one of the things that they say is that other than mindfulness, probably the single best skill that they learn is this concept of validation.
So this idea of recognizing that that there is wisdom, that there’s a perspective that comes from a person’s age, experiences, development, religion, whatever it is, state of exhaustion, whatever it is, and so, now why is it so important, because this is the question that you asked.
Now, let’s imagine, okay, let’s do this thought experiment, that I’m your math teacher, and I come in and I say, “Okay guys, one and one is two.” So you say, “Okay,” you write that down.
The next day I come in and I say, “One and one is six,” you write that down. Next day I come in and say, “One and one is eight,” you write that down. So now there’s the math test and I say, “What’s one and one?” And you say, “Well, what is the answer, because I don’t have a way of knowing. You keep giving me different answers.”
So for a child to get to really understand who they are and to be able to self-validate, they have to have the experience of having been validated, which is the idea of, that their experiences make sense, not only to themselves, but to the rest of the world.
So it’s a reflection by the parent that says, “I get it.” You know, “I get it that you are suffering, that you are sad, that you are worried, etc., even if it’s not something that would elicit worry or something in me.”
Because one of the things that we tend to do at times is say something like, you know, say a kid is scared of the monster under the bed. You say, “Oh, come on kid. There’s no monster under the bed.” Yet they might still be afraid. So you can validate the fear without there being necessarily a monster under the bed.
So part of the, I mean, I think that the most important reason as to why it’s so important to validate is because this is how children ultimately learn to self-validate, and learn to say, “My experience is true. I don’t have to check in with somebody else for my experience.”
Jenn: So what would validation, say a parent gets started with this when their kid is young, acknowledges fear like the monster under the bed.
What does continuous validation of emotions and actions do for a child’s mental health, both in their short and long term, aside from teaching them how to self-validate?
Blaise: Yeah, so certainly many people who come to our treatment center don’t know how to express their emotions, how to express their experiences, know if what they’re feeling is actually accurate and if it’s true.
And that is because often in their environments, people have said, “Oh, you’re making a big deal out of this thing.” Or, you know, “You should just get over it.”
And maybe one of the other things that happens is that they see other people in similar circumstances being able to overcome whatever obstacles they have in their path and they think, I should be able to do that.
But, and this is true of especially highly sensitive people, and that is that validation says not only to the person look, what you’re experiencing is a real emotion and it is true for you, and then in the context of feeling validated and being able to self-validate, then being able to work on solutions to maybe strong emotions or strong urges and so on.
So it’s this idea that it also provides a context where problem-solving and expression of internal states can happen.
And so many times, we have people that struggle with inner states where they don’t, where they feel terrified of sharing, and then they hold that within themselves and it causes so much suffering, and the idea of like being able to say, “Hey, this is how I’m feeling,” without being afraid that it’s going to be invalidated.
Jenn: So one thing I want to address is there’s been some evolution of self-validation with the fact that kids are just exposed to so much online all the time, especially with social media. It’s really just a highlight reel.
So when it comes to that inner turmoil that kids are experiencing, I’d like, I’d love to know in your experience as being a provider, how do you think self-validation has changed as these kids and teens are more exposed to just the top moments of people’s lives?
Blaise: Yeah, so a couple of thoughts I have about that.
You know, first of all, it’s true, it’s like there are shifting models for how we should be, you know, like, oh, how many tattoos should I have, you know, what should my body shape and size be, you know, how can I look fabulous, and you know, how do I get to be accepted or not?
But remember, the infant does not grow up with social media. Now, it’s interesting when some of these very young kids can manipulate an iPad at two or three, but what I’m saying is that they don’t have Instagram accounts, they don’t have Facebook accounts.
And so if they have not learned how to self-validate, it is much, much harder because, you know, to develop that sense of self, they’re going to be looking to the outside, and if social media is the forum where they do that, then it’s going to be kind of painful.
But this is why I think if we can start as early on as we can teaching self-validation, then later on, you know, the fact that somebody is a great basketball player is not as important to me because I know how to self-validate.
I know I can feel good about things myself, but it is much harder the more we, that invalidating environment persists, because then social media is absolutely going to influence that, the self-invalidation a lot more.
“I’m not as good as… I’m not as tall as... I’m not as intelligent as... I’m not as skilled as...” et cetera.
Jenn: I would love to know some examples of how self-validation actually appears in kids and teens. Does it come off as being more confident, less anxious? What have you seen both as a parent and a provider?
Blaise: Yeah, so I think that, you know, so say a person has had not had good experiences in say therapy, and you know, maybe it was the wrong therapy for what the person was asking for help.
And then they come in, they say, “Well, I hate therapy, therapy doesn’t work. You know, I shouldn’t be doing therapy.” Now, you could get one side where it says, “What are you talking about? You need therapy, you’ve got all these problems. You need to address these problems in therapy.”
But the validating response would be to say, “Hey, you know, you’re here because other things that you’ve tried haven’t worked, and maybe it’s because people haven’t listened to what you had to say.
Maybe you weren’t able to articulate what you had to say, and does it make sense to you that you would be mistrustful of therapy if it hasn’t worked for you up until this point?”
So this is where the person, you know, rather than feel, because a lot of patients that we see feel that they were the ones to blame for why things failed, you know, but we never blame, you know, if an antibiotic doesn’t work, we don’t blame the patient, we blame the antibiotic.
But then, but in many cases for therapy, many patients and providers have blamed the patient. “Oh, you know, you haven’t gotten better because of some characteristic that you have.”
Whereas I would say for many of these patients, saying, “No, you know, it makes sense that it wasn’t the right therapy for me. I didn’t connect with the person, the person didn’t listen to me, and that was a true experience for me.”
So that, those kinds of things, or, let’s just say that they’re feeling sad, but then, you know, other people think, oh, you shouldn’t be feeling sad about that. It’s to say, “Wait a second, that is how you’re feeling, and it is true for you.
I might not feel sad about that thing, but it is true for you that you’re moving, that you’re going to a new school, that you’re graduating, that you’re going off to college, and that it’s a transition.
I might not feel, I might be happy that you’re going off to college, but for you, it’s sad, and that sadness is real for you.” So it’s that, it’s just that recognition, not like, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel sad. Don’t you know what a great opportunity you have to go to college,” et cetera.
Jenn: One of the things I’m curious about too is in the world of borderline personality disorder, emotional regulation comes up quite often, and I’m curious if there’s a correlation between validation and emotional regulation, and if so, what’s the relationship between the two?
Blaise: Yeah, there’s no question about this that, and I’ve seen this in my own practice, and certainly in my early days, but even still to this day, when I’m invalidating, you see an escalation of emotions.
And by the way, this doesn’t happen only with borderline personality disorder. This happens with, with ordinary people, and by ordinary, I don’t mean that they have or don’t have, or, but just like people in my life that aren’t patients, or just, you know, anyone who feels that they’re not being listened to, that there’s an escalation of emotion.
So what we see is that validation, you know, if you think about, you know, like I know when I was a kid, I used to play with magnets, and so like if I had the north on north and they would bounce off each other and they’d get pushed apart, and if I had north and south, then they would click, and so I almost see it that way.
It’s sort of, it’s something, it’s, validation draws people closer together so that they can be more collaborative, problem-solving, and help, whereas invalidation pushes you away. So it’s actually a great indicator.
People say, “How do I know I’m being invalidating?” It’s if you see an escalation of emotions or behaviors, often we’ve gotten validation wrong, and so yeah.
Jenn: Is there any way to recognize if and when validation has become almost like too much, or there’s an unhealthy level of validation that’s going on between a parent and a child?
Blaise: Yeah. So, you know, so DBT, dialectical behavior therapy says, you know, that two things are true, you know, can be true at the same time. So what’s the other truth with validation, it’s invalidation.
You know, let’s imagine, okay, well, we’ll be absurd for the sake of this discussion. Let’s just say, you know, a child learns how to walk and you’re like, oh, you’re so excited and yay and fantastic.
But then, you know, the child’s now 13, you say, “Hey, I’m so happy that you’re able to walk” and stuff like that.
You know, there comes a point where it’s not contextually important, and we also have to be careful not to get into reassurance, which is like, “Oh my gosh, you know, you did this thing and it was so great and everything.” ‘Cause sometimes people think that praise is validation.
So I don’t actually think that validation can be too much. I think that there can be too much praise, there can be too much reassurance, there can be too much punishment.
But you know, validation is really the context of somebody coming over and saying, you know, “Hey, this is what I’m experiencing,” and you being able to recognize that there’s truth for that person in that moment, being able to listen, being able to reflect accurately, being able to just recognize how they would come to it.
So, you know, at the same time, I mean, if somebody has to, “Hey, that was hard.” “Yeah, that was hard.” And you also, you know, “You have to try hard and you have to do more things,” and that’s also, it can sound invalidating when you say, “Come on, you know, you got to try a little bit harder here.” So yeah.
Jenn: I’m curious too about, you know, it’s, parents don’t have it easy these days. It’s every generation, every generation is different than the previous one, and yet we’re still expected to raise a new generation with this understanding, even if we don’t know what they’re actually going through.
So do you have any advice for how to convey the “I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge you,” even if we don’t really grasp why it’s such a difficult problem, relationship issue for our kids?
Blaise: Yeah, you know, so it’s been true that for, you know, hundreds of thousand years of human evolution, I mean, if you think about our species, I mean, we’re the most populous ever.
I mean, we’ve survived because we’ve been able to connect and stay connected, and all the challenges that parents face and have been challenges, you know, probably like, “Hey, stop picking on the saber-toothed tiger,” you know, “they’re going to bite you.”
Or you know, whatever it is through the thousands and thousands of years of human evolution. And you know, so this, so, but there’s a child and there’s an infant, there’s an infant and there’s a caregiver, and you see, this is where I think we do have a tremendous opportunities.
You know, who knows what the new technologies are going to be of the future. But if from the outset, you know, a child, an infant is born, is that going to happen anytime soon, and the child cries at night, because why?
Because the diaper’s wet, because the child is hungry, and the parent recognizes it by feeding the child, by changing the diaper, validates, validates the child’s experience.
Not in a verbal way, because the child doesn’t have that ability, but does it over and over and over again, and so the child then begins to trust itself, knows that when it says, “Mom, I’m hungry,” “Dad, I’m hungry,” “Parent, I’m hungry” that it’ll be taken care of.
So I think that then once you have that template, whatever happens later on, it will be okay, because they have a template for being able to self-assess.
And you know, who knows, for those, for people who have secure attachments and able to self-validate, you know, I didn’t have the internet or any of these things beforehand, but you know, they’re there now. It’s okay, I can deal with it because of those early examples.
As with anything, learning a language, learning a sport, learning a musical instrument, the later you do it, it does become harder. So that’s why I’m saying like, you know, try to get it at the outset, ‘cause what you do today is going to be the thing that helps 12 years from.
Jenn: I think it’s really interesting that you brought up the point of like a validating action versus just providing reaffirming words. Do you have any other examples you could provide of validating actions that parents can take?
Blaise: I mean, okay, so let’s think of something a little bit trivial. You know, and I remember getting a jar of peanut butter when I was a little kid and I say, I wanted this peanut butter and my dad saying, “Oh, come on, you can do it,” or whatever it is.
I couldn’t ‘cause it was just so hard, the lid was on so hard, and my mom just went and got the peanut butter jar and opened it, you know? So in that situation, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t say, “Hey, I can see that your hands are little and that you’re little and that you want peanut butter.”
She just opened the peanut butter jar and that says, you recognize, you see me, you understand what my state is. And now, if I were 13, 14, and then my dad would say, “Come on, you can do that” I’d probably say, “Yeah, you’re right, I can probably do it.”
So it’s picking a child up when they’ve fallen down, you know, providing someone a tissue when they’re crying or a cup of tea if they’re cold or something like that.
It’s, you don’t have to necessarily, just even listening, you know, just sort of sitting there and just listening, being present, not having your phone on when you’re talking to somebody, and you know, that sort of thing.
So yeah, there, you know, it doesn’t have to be with words. It can just be just being present.
Jenn: One of the things that I also love about talking to you, Blaise, is that you openly address what you, like, the trials and tribulations of you being a parent yourself.
And I’m curious about how, based on your professional experience as well as your parental experience, how have you shown validation toward your kids and you have four of them, right?
Blaise: Right, right, right, mm-hm.
Jenn: Okay, so how have you shown validation toward all four kids?
Blaise: Yeah, I, you know, and again, before DBT, I don’t think, I think I probably would’ve been very similar to how my parents did things. My mom was much more validating, my dad far less so.
And so I may have been a mix of it, but without really understanding it. So here’s the thing is, okay, so I’ll give you an example. One of my kids came and said that they were having conflict with a teacher.
Old me would’ve said, you know, “You can’t have conflict with teachers. They’re the ones who are going to grade you. You’re going to depend on them for letters of recommendation and everything. What you should do is the following, blah, blah blah.”
Now here’s the thing is, my son didn’t want to hear my advice. He just wanted to tell me what he was struggling with.
So one of the things that I say to my kids is, “Listen, I appreciate so much that you’ve come to me to talk to me, and if what you want me to do is just to listen, I’ll just listen. If you want my help, I’ll try and help to the extent that I can.”
So I think that one of the ways is that, you know, and we still, many of us do it, and we do this as parents, because as parents, we want to solve problems for our children. Of course we do. We want to make their lives easier, we want them to succeed.
But it robs them of an opportunity to have their own experience if all we do is swoop in. So it’s this idea of just saying to a child, you know, when they want to tell you something, “Okay, I’m just going to listen.
Do you want me to just listen to how difficult it is or how successful you’ve been” or whatever it is, rather than immediately jumping in and problem-solving. And I think if, the parents greatest gift to themselves would be to stop becoming problem solvers, unless we’re asked for problem-solving, and it’s so antithetical to parenting.
But I think that my own kids would say that they’re so grateful for this distinction of not swooping in immediately, listening, and then if they want help, asking for help specifically.
Jenn: Well, it leads them to become better critical thinkers, it allows them to become more resilient, it allows them to become more creative, right?
Blaise: Right, yeah, and then sometimes they come up with their own solutions, and sometimes those solutions don’t work as well as maybe a solution that I would have, but it was their solution, and they can begin to modify the solutions based on their experience.
The other thing that happens is, parents will often share their own experience about something as a way to try to get, you know, kids to sort of change, and so my kids tease me and say, you know, like, “Oh, when I used to listen to music…”
And they say, “Well, is that when you got that thing called a record and you would put it on a record player and you would then have to like find the needle” and like, you know, it’s, the times are different, you know?
So it’s the fact that I had a certain experience about something. Now you want to take your music with you, you can take it wherever you want. You know, it’s all in the Cloud, and, you know.
But if the idea that, you know, when I was young is, one day the music will be in the Cloud, I thought, I don’t know what I would’ve thought, you know? So it’s, yeah, two years, you said that earlier, things are always changing. But you know, it’s yeah, what is the experience, so.
Jenn: I know the first half of our conversation so far has been about the benefits of experiencing validation, ways that we can show it, but what I’m equally as curious about is when our loved ones aren’t experiencing feelings of validation.
And I know, you know, generations change, there’s certainly the folks that grew up in the Great Depression, like my, the age of mine and yours parents, where they said, “We just kind of sucked it up and went through it.”
But I’m curious to know what happens if our loved ones aren’t experiencing feelings of validation. What does that do to their mental health?
Blaise: Right, so I think it depends a lot.
I mean, there’s some kids who are ultra-resilient and you know, as a parent, you might say, “Oh, come on,” you know, “get over it. It was much tougher in my day,” or, “Other kids have it worse” and stuff like that. And they just say, “You know what, you’re right,” you know, and so, and that’s fine.
But the thing about it is, is that for highly sensitive people, often, you know, they look around and they’re highly sensitive, and they see things that really upset them, but it doesn’t seem to be upsetting anybody else.
So, well, maybe am I overreacting? And so when invalidation happens, which is to tell somebody that they’re overreacting, that they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling, that problems are really easy to solve, they then start to become their own worst critic, and they become a harsh critic.
And then they say, “Okay, I shouldn’t be feeding this way. I should be solving these problems. It should be easier. I should be more like my friend who’s able to bounce back every time we break up.”
And so when you live with this idea that you ought to be a more capable person than you are, and that’s an internal state, you can become very, very self-critical, and that’s associated with depression and anxiety, because you’re living with these thoughts and you’re thinking, I don’t know how to do this, you know?
So that’s where the invalidation can become very toxic. And then it also, you know, distances you from the people that you love if they don’t know how to validate you, or if you don’t know how to ask for validation or experience.
And, you know, and then, you know, if you’re already feeling more sensitive than most people, then feeling distant and disconnected and isolated can be very painful.
Jenn: So if folks haven’t experienced these feelings of validation, how can they start instilling self-validation in themselves?
Blaise: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, you know, I think for the very, like, very, very big, oh, it makes sense that I would be sad for this situation given this, can seem like too big for a person who’s never experienced validation. So I think it’s important to just start with smaller things.
And maybe it’s something like, you know, and I’ve seen things like somebody eats a piece of cake and then they say, “Oh, wow, I really liked it,” and then other people say, “Oh, that was disgusting,” and then they think, oh, maybe it should have been disgusting, oh yeah, I think it’s disgusting.
So it’s like saying, wait a second. What is your experience in this present moment, that this, the experience that you’re having in this present moment is a valid experience, whether it’s sadness, whether it’s cold. What does it feel like, it’s cold?
Well, I might not be cold, but you’re cold, I don’t have a headache, but maybe you have a headache. You know, so it’s much more here and now practice of validation and self-validation, and then being able to expand it outward to a more, you know, historical context, like it makes sense that I would be sad given these things that have happened.
Jenn: We did have someone write in saying that they think that they were emotionally invalidated by their parents growing up, and as a result, it’s led to challenges for them both emotionally and socially as an adult, where they’re having difficulty experiencing positive emotions.
They feel disconnected from others, they feel like they’re lacking in purpose and motivation, and they’re curious about any tips about addressing and overcoming them as well as would there be a specific type of therapy that would be beneficial for teaching types of invalidation?
And before you jump in, I do want to just say, again, any advice that Blaise is giving today is not something that you should jump in on your own. Always talk to your own care team before pursuing any additional medical consults.
Blaise: Yeah, so I think DBT, I mean, dialectical behavior therapy has embedded in its code of therapy this concept of validation.
And yeah, I mean, it would make me certainly very, very sad if I was, if I had been brought up in a way where nothing, none of my experiences were validated, and maybe there was even trauma.
And then how do you begin to explain that, express that to, you know, the people in your life and the people that you love, who might be very confused by what it is that you’re talking about?
And it is hard to, perhaps if you’ve seen the world through this lens of invalidation and the painful emotions, to then start experiencing, or, you know, there’s sort of more joyful moments.
And again, I think that for my patients historically, where this has worked is like, we’ve taken a single moment, like maybe we’ll go outside and then we’ll just say, “Okay, rather than therapy, let’s just listen to the birds.”
Now, you know, that might seem unusual for therapy, but it, what I’m saying is, does that bring you joy, does that bring you pleasure, et cetera.
And, you know, and just to be able to connect with elements that, whether it’s music or food or the outdoors or something like that that bring you even the smallest amount of joy, and then to expand that more and more and more, and you know, some people love the outdoors, so then be, spend more time outdoors, you know?
So again, start small and then expand, you know, this is how I would think, because I think it’s, otherwise, it’s too daunting a task. You look at the top of the mountain, you say, “I have to get there,” and it feels like too far. Saying, “Okay, but I only have to take a few steps now. Okay, now this is how I can get to the top of the mountain.”
Jenn: I’m curious about how we can convey validation toward people we’re caring for, even if we don’t agree with their thoughts or point of view. I find that, you know, even when it’s like, a teenager’s problems may seem like small potatoes to us, because they’re going to forget about it in a day, or so we think.
Blaise: Yeah, yeah, no, this happens a lot in the work that we do where, you know, say, so for example, somebody wants to get a tattoo, and the parent is just like in total disagreement. Somebody wants to get a piercing, parent is in disagreement.
Somebody wants to drop a course in school, parent is in disagreement. Somebody wants to date a certain person, the parent’s in disagreement. So then you say, okay, there’s these things that people want to do, and yet the parent doesn’t agree with it.
So okay, so where’s the validation of it? So if you were to think about that everything makes sense, you know, if you say, “I don’t want to get a tattoo.” Now, to the people who want to get a tattoo, that might not make sense that you don’t want to get a tattoo.
So if that, if not getting a tattoo makes sense to you and getting a tattoo makes sense to the other person, it’s not saying, “I agree with getting tattoos or not getting tattoos,” it’s saying, “Help me understand your point of view.”
I’m a vegetarian, I haven’t eaten meat in 11 years, fish or anything like that, but I remember eating meat, and I know that eating meat was pretty awesome, and I can understand that people would want to eat meat. Yet I don’t want to eat meat for moral and ethical reasons.
So I can agree and I can even understand that a person has a different perspective to mine, and I can validate that without necessarily agreeing with it. So you can say, okay, so by you getting a tattoo, you’re going to feel more like you’re part of your crowd, that you’re going to feel more connected to some of your friends, et cetera.
I get that. Now, if you’re asking me my opinion, you know, I don’t support it, and I don’t agree with it for whatever reason, you know. For some people, it’s, some people it’s a religious reason that they will not get a tattoo and they don’t want their children tattooed either, but the child wants to get a tattoo.
So sort of understanding that the perspective of the person makes sense, even if you don’t agree with it. And I think the other part, the reason why this is so important is, right now in this country we are so polarized, this or that, you know, pro-choice, pro-life, Republican, Democrat, you know, black and white.
And so what happens is that we tend to other, and yet, how did somebody get to the perspective that they did, to be curious about that, to be open, to have that kind of discussion. Now, it might change your mind, it might change your point of view and it might not.
But what I’m saying is at least through listening, you know, it, you don’t automatically, you know, kind of polarize someone just because they have a slightly different point of view.
Jenn: I’m curious if there are differences between, I know you’ve touched on this a little bit about what validation is like for a newborn, but is there additional differences between how we validate kids versus teens versus young adults? What does that evolution of validation look like?
Blaise: Yeah, I think that the, you know, you, again, the goal of validation, not only in terms of relational health, because it is so healthy for relationships, but it’s also the idea of teaching somebody that they can self-validate, right?
So I think that with the infant, you know, I mean, are we preposterous to say, “I understand that it’s two o’clock in the morning and that you’re probably hungry and that you’re wet,” and you know, “and that must be really awful.”
You don’t say anything, you just change the diaper. When the child is two years old, you know, you might have a slightly firmer, “No, you can’t go outside,” or, “You have to put on your coat,” or, you know, but again, you know, you do a lot more for.
But then, so as you know, now, if you were to think about your own family member and that in sort of trying to validate your mom, there would be very, very different from an infant, and that is that, you know, it’s often either stated in a very manifest way, but it’s also much more complicated.
Let’s just say for example a person wants to date someone, your child wants to date someone that you’re not that happy about.
So validation might mean taking in and listening to the elements of the aspects that, you know, your child wants. “I like this person because they’re funny, they’re supportive, they, you know, they’re there for me,” et cetera.
And holding in mind that you have concerns about that at the same time, so not get too polarized within yourself. So as an infant, if a child’s hungry, they’re hungry. There’s no discussion about that.
But later on, there might be many more nuance, and there might be elements, so for instance, a child might have failed a test and says, “I failed a test, therefore I’m stupid.” So you might validate, “Yeah, you failed a test, That is just true, that’s fact.
The, you know, you saying that you’re stupid, it, that’s invalid. You might not have studied for it, you might not have prepared well enough for it,” et cetera. So it’s a much more kind of complex.
Now, the other thing is that adolescents are historically and notoriously often unwilling to share their emotional experiences. And what I have found is that the more validating you can be, the more the child shares with you.
And sometimes people would often be very surprised with the level of detail that my kids would often share with me, and that’s because, you know, I’d sort of, by listening and not being judgmental, that doesn’t mean that I like what they do.
I’d say, “Okay, dude, you know, you were up, you had a drink last night, I told you that that couldn’t happen. You lose the car for a week,” or whatever it is. So there’s still consequence, not just saying, “Oh, okay I understand.”
You know, I can understand why they would’ve wanted to have a drink, ‘cause that’s what other adolescents are doing and it was kind of fun, and I probably did the same thing when I was young, but there’s still going to be consequences to that, even if you know, you can validate an experience.
Jenn: What can parents do if there are seemingly small problems, so a parent actually wrote him with the example of misplaced homework, but these small problems are leading to really big emotions.
How can parents validate these experiences and help them guide into problem-solving instead of everybody just blowing their lid because their teenager can’t find their homework?
Blaise: Right, right, yeah, you know, in dialectical behavior therapy, there’s this idea of chain analysis.
Chain analysis is an examination of a series of events that start off with antecedents, the things that happen before behavior, then the behavior, the things that happen after behavior. So, you know, let’s say for instance that in this particular case, a child is misplacing their homework.
Now, if it’s happened just once, then it happened just once. But if it’s a pattern of behavior, then I’ll say, “Okay, you know, we really need to pay attention to this behavior, because it’s leading to bigger problems later on, either conflict with the school, conflict with teachers, conflict with parents, et cetera.”
So what we need to do is prevent this misplacement of homework. Now, who knows why the child’s misplacing. Maybe they’re depressed, maybe they have other things that they’re more interested in, maybe they’ve got ADD, ADHD, maybe they’ve got, they’re more interested in, I don’t know, hanging out with their friends, et cetera.
So you say, “But wait a second, we are,” first of all, there has to be mutual agreement, “by misplacing your homework, all of these things happen. So ideally, we don’t misplace homework.
So let’s see, what are the vulnerability factors to misplacing homework? Is it only on Tuesdays and Thursdays when you’ve got after school hockey? Is it on the weekends after you’ve had a great time, you know, with friends. When is it happening? Is it happening every day?
If it’s happening every day, how can we begin to anticipate it, because what are the factors, you know, that are causing that? Do we need to have teachers come in and help us with a solution to this?
Is there, are there other ways that you can, you know, get your homework sort of sent to you? Is there anything I can do to help with this problem?” So I would look at the sequence of events that lead to that problem and the consequences.
Jenn: How can we help validate emotions and actions when our kid themselves may not actually understand why they’re doing what they do? And an example of this would be, if your kid is yelling and you go, “Why are you yelling,” they just yell back at you, “I don’t know why I’m yelling.”
Blaise: Yeah, yeah, so I’ve moved away from this question, “Why are you doing something?” And that is that everything is caused, everything in the universe is caused.
Now of course, if I hurt my toe and I start yelling, and somebody says, “Why are you yelling,” And I say, “Well, because I hurt my toe,” and then they say, “Okay, well that kind of makes sense that, why you’re yelling.”
But often, you know, the problem with the kind of question like, “Why are you doing something,” in many cases, people don’t know, but then they feel that that’s even more invalidating, because it sort of implies that they should know.
So I think that rather than asking the question why is to recognize that a person seems upset. Just saying, “Wow, you know, you just, you seem really, really upset right now.” It’s just sort of a recognition of what that is, and then just leave it at that.
Because now you’re recognizing that something’s happened. Now they might say, “No, I’m not upset, I’m really happy ‘cause I just got into school. That’s, that’s why I’m yelling.” Yeah, so I think, just, it’s just a recognizing, “Wow, you seem to be having a hard time,” and then leave it at that.
And then if emotions start to come down, then being able to sort of say, “What happened? What happened that you got there?”
Because why seems pretty, like an inquisition, sort of, you know, it can have this sort of element of, you know, “You think I know all the answers,” et cetera, et cetera, but you know, when you’re emotionally distressed, any of us, it’s very hard to think.
You have to regulate before you can think, and so this idea of being in a state of calmness, but you get there through validation. You can say, “Wow, what happened? You know, you seem so upset. Is there something I can do?”
Rather than like, “What’s going on? Why, who were you with? What caused this?” You know, “How late were you up last night,” so.
Jenn: We had some people asking for additional clarification on the differences between praise and validation as well as when is validation more appropriate than praising someone?
Blaise: Yeah, okay, so, now, so validation is a recognition of what the truth is in a situation. So if you’re sad and you say to me, “I’m sad,” and I say, I, and I recognize, “Wow, can you tell me what happened?”
And you say whatever happened, and said, “Okay, it sounds like you’re really sad.” Now, I wouldn’t be praising you by saying, “Hey, well done,” you know, “you’re sad,” you know it’s like. But I mean, so when do we use praise?
If we want behavior to change, and praise is reinforcing, then you would use praise to get that behavioral change. So what do we mean by reinforcement, it’s that anything that increases or maintains certain kinds of behavior.
You get your salary at the end of the week or at the end of the month, and then that keeps you, that’s the reinforcer. So if your child needs encouragement and you say, “Come on, you can do this. Well done, you tried so hard,” et cetera, and it keeps them in the game, that is praise.
But validation has very little to do with praise. It’s just a recognition that says, “I am here, I am listening, I see that you are happy, sad, struggling, why your behavior makes sense given who you are, given the experiences that you have, and that maybe for some of us, no matter who we are, we will all have the same experience.”
So it’s just a recognition of the is-ness of a person’s experience rather than going to praise. And by the way, some people are find praise very, very aversive. So, you know, it’s like you say, “Hey, well done,” you think, what, you’re praising me for this?
Okay, I’m not going to do it anymore. so you’ve got to know your own child. And don’t automatically praise, because praise might not be the thing that reinforces them.
Jenn: Would you say that invalidating behavior is the same as gaslighting or are they different?
Blaise: So this idea of gaslighting is an interesting one, and gaslighting could definitely be a form of invalidation, you know, sort of intentionally knowing that something happened and saying that it didn’t happen.
Yeah, I think that that would be a form of invalidation. There are many forms of invalidation, certainly abuse, inconsistency, and other things, but gaslighting would definitely be a form of invalidation.
Jenn: How true is it that in order to receive validation from others, you must validate others first?
Blaise: I don’t think that that needs to be the case, and you know, people who don’t understand this concept of validation might not be all that validating.
I mean, so you can learn to, you can teach validation, and it’s sort of interesting when people see validation at work, then they’ll often, you know, use it themselves. But I don’t think it’s, you know, I mean, if you’ve never experienced it to be able to do it to somebody else, you’d have to experience it a few times first.
But, you know, I don’t need to be validated by my patients or by my own kids or by my colleagues in order to be validating. I mean, of course it’s nice, but I can still, you know, use validation whether I’m validated or not.
Jenn: We had somebody write in asking, how would somebody who has come from a large family with a history of invalidation actually ask to be validated, and a follow-up question to it would be, how can they get over the resentment they’re feeling in order to receive validation and feel like they belong in their family?
Blaise: Yeah, no, I, well, I’m the eldest of eight children, and so I also come from a very large family. We grew up in four countries on three, yeah, four countries and three continents, so different experiences, different stages of life and stuff like that.
So I get it, and you know, my parents were the same parents, and they were, you know, some more sensitive than others, and so I’m sure that we all had different experiences.
So one of the ways to get over the resentment, and this is how, you know, because I certainly, growing up and even in early medical school stuff, I would probably be somebody who was pretty resentful towards others who I thought were hurtful and stuff like that, is if I can move to the idea that people are who they are, often, if they don’t know validation, it’s through ignorance.
It’s because they weren’t aware, and if I can have, if I can say, you know, if I insist that you speak Spanish, but you say, “I don’t know how to speak Spanish,” but then I’m resentful for you because I say, “You’re not speaking Spanish,” you know, if I can just say, “Hey, listen, you know what?
You just didn’t know. You didn’t know it was important to me, You didn’t know that I needed that, and I am going to practice self-validation. And even though you weren’t that validating, I’m going to be validating with you.”
What I’m saying is, you know, resentment is a form of attachment that causes suffering, because we’re holding onto and wishing that our parents were somebody other than who they were.
And by the way, you know, it’s interesting, because many invalidating parents had no idea that they were invalidating. They just thought that they were doing the right thing, especially with lots of other children, where everybody else felt validated, but they missed out that, you know, you were more sensitive and so on.
So I just think it’s like, you know, whether they caused it or not, it’s giving them the idea that, you didn’t cause your invalidation, and it’s yours to solve anyway, and that your parents probably were ignorant, clueless.
And, you know, it’s, and that, because they had those deficits, they didn’t know what to do, and then having some compassion for people who were ignorant, I think is the way to let go of that resentment.
Jenn: Do you have any additional advice for how we can generationally break that cycle of invalidation, especially if we are raising our own kids now?
Blaise: Yeah, and I think, and I, you know, I see this in some families where, you know, a new mom or, you know, has a history of their own invalidation, and they are terrified that they’re going to do the same thing that their parents did to them.
And I think that just the fact that you’re aware of that is already really, really important. And I, you know, it’s interesting in the book, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” I’d probably add, you know, page one is the most important skill that you’re going to learn is to validate.
And I mean, I think, you know, to break any repetition, any cycle of invalidation is, you know, the buck stops here. You are the only one, you are the only one who can repair this.
I mean, of course, it’s nice if therapists are helping, if family members are helping, neighbors are helping, teachers, but you’re the one where it starts.
And then you can say, “You know what? This is really hard for me. I never learned how to do this, and I don’t want my children to struggle the way that I did. So from the outset, I’m going to start with this idea of just recognizing their truth.”
Jenn: Can you expand a little bit more on the statement you shared where resentment is a form of attachment that causes suffering?
Blaise: Yeah, so all, you know, this is kind of a Zen belief, a Buddhist belief, and that is that attachment to ideas or to things that have happened cause suffering. So maybe I was bullied in school.
When, you know, maybe somebody said something that was hurtful. And then I’m holding onto that. Now, the person might not be alive, may have moved on, may have actually become a really nice person, but I am holding on today, in this present moment, as if that thing was still happening right now.
Now, let’s just say that you continue to be invalidated. Yes, that invalidation is actually happening right now.
But if you start to change your relationship with that problem or how you see that problem by saying, “These people are ignorant and they don’t know better, and so, but I’m going to hold onto the resentment from the past as if it was something that was intentional, that was hurtful.”
Of course it’s painful, but we’re the ones who are doing the holding on. Our resentment doesn’t impact the other person necessarily. They don’t know. They’re just going on about their life. So we are continuing to suffer because of something that’s happened.
That’s what I’m saying about holding on. You know, if you hold a two pound weight in your arm, you know, most people can hold a two pound weight, but what happens after five minutes or 10 minutes? It becomes heavier and heavier and heavier.
The longer you hold on, the more you suffer. And you can always put something down by saying, how do you put this down? You can say, “My parents were invalidating, that caused a lot of hurt in me. I didn’t know how to self-validate.
I’m going to have compassion for them and say that they were ignorant. I’m going to self-validate, I’m going to take care of myself, and not continue to allow that,” you know. And it takes, you know, you can’t just do it overnight. It takes a while to get to that point.
But I’m just saying like, I mean, if you can put something down or not put something down, why hold onto something that is hurtful to you?
Jenn: I think there is like a, there’s, I’m probably going to butcher the saying, but it’s like, “Holding onto anger is like lighting yourself on fire and waiting for the other person to burn.”
Blaise: Or holding onto, yeah, holding onto a hot coal with the hope that other people burn, or swallowing a poison, hoping that the other person will, you know, die, so yeah.
Jenn: All very, all very similar.
Blaise: One of those, you know, historical accounts, yeah.
Jenn: Do you have any advice for what a parent could do if they see or hear others invalidating their child, especially if it’s their other parent?
Blaise: Yeah, and you know, we can, this is a tricky one.
I think there’s two things in that kind of situation. One is you’ve got to know your child, and you know, what I’ve done, certainly for myself, like, you know, just go and speak to the kid, and say, “Hey, you know, sounds like that was really harsh.”
But then I would also speak to the parent, and you know, most parents just want to have successful children to say, “Look, I know that the way that you treated the other two were perfectly fine. You know, you’d tell them to get up and move and everything like this.
This is a more sensitive kid. This is not how their brain works, how their central nervous system works. So you’ve got to, you know, for this particular kid, you’ve got to lay off, because there’s, because the invalidation is going to be pretty toxic.”
But I think like, you know, all you need is one validating parent in your life to be able to just recognize that what you’re experiencing is true. Ideally you have two, ideally you have a network, a village of validating people.
The world isn’t, but if you have one that can teach you to self-validate, then you have a fighting chance of dealing with a very invalidating world.
Jenn: Should validation come with some sort of reward structure? A parent wrote in asking about, should we be prizing our children instead of praising, or is validation a reward enough for our kids?
Blaise: Well, you know, look, I think we should get away from this idea of reward, because what I’m thinking about is an effect.
What, you know, I mean, if the reward is that you have an effective, functioning adolescent or human being, that ought to be the reward in itself, so that the, you know, you could say that having a closer relationship is a reward.
But I’m just saying, I think of it as beneficial rather than it, ‘cause I think in my own mind reward is like, okay, you get a salary or you get, you know, you get a bonus or something like that, and it’s not, it shouldn’t be that kind of transactional in the sense of, like, I get this, you get that.
But it’s just like, it’s beneficial to us and it’s beneficial to the relationship, and ultimately it’s beneficial to you, as you, my child, you know, go on in your own path. So, but I wouldn’t state it as you know, like, okay, I just validated you in that, you know, so therefore you do something. It shouldn’t be, like, transactional in that way.
Jenn: Got it. I know we’re bumping up against the hour, so any last words of wisdom that you would want to impart to folks tuning in about validation?
Blaise: Yeah, it is a parenting superpower. It is what the parents who’ve come through our program tell us has been the most useful skill.
And you know, it’s, it can be conceptually difficult at first, because you sort of, because it feels like endorsement, agreement, et cetera, but it’s just a recognition that, you know, it’s when the three year old can’t see on the kitchen counter, they can’t see on the kitchen counter ‘cause they’re little.
So it’s sort of thinking that, from the child’s perspective, how they see the world is true, and it’ll really enhance relationships. And if you, you know, the best way to start is just to listen without offering any problem-solving or advice.
Jenn: I think that’s a really great takeaway, not just for how we parent, but how we deal with other adults as well. Listen, don’t always offer advice. This actually wraps up our session. Blaise, it is so much fun to talk to you. It’s like an hour goes by like that.
So I just want to say thank you so much for imparting so much wisdom about validating thoughts and emotions in kids and teens. For anybody tuning in, this actually concludes the session.
So until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Blaise, thank you so much again, and have a great day everyone.
Blaise: Thanks, okay, bye-bye.
Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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