Renee from the MudRoom has been making some truly hilarious reels over on Instagram about how absurd and frustrating the “validate their emotions” advice that floats around the internet is and I totally get it!
This is something I’ve said too, and I think there’s a lot of confusion around what validating emotions actually means.
I’ve had to coach my clients on this, I’ve talked about it a few times in the Posse, so now seemed like a good time to teach y’all the proper way to “validate emotions” cause unfortunately, it’s not as easy as being like “I can see that you’re upset.”
First: validating emotions does not mean the tantrum or meltdown is going to stop.
K? That’s not the function of validating emotions.
The point of validating emotions is to help our children feel safe while learning to navigate their feelings.
Remember most “bad behaviour” is a result of kids perceiving that they aren’t able to keep themselves safe, whether that’s because of an external threat or an internal one.
In order to process and learn from our emotions we need to be able to metacognate on them.
Metacognition literally means to think about thinking.
In this context, we need to be able to think about our emotions in order to learn from them.
It’s really hard to think about a feeling because it isn’t cognitive. In order to think about something that isn’t cognitive, we need to be able to label it.
It has to at bare minimum have a name and that’s the point of validating emotions, it’s to say, this thing you’re feeling?
It’s called frustration. This is what frustration feels like.
Once a child can identify I’m feeling frustrated then it’s possible to teach them what to do when they’re frustrated.
To give them a way back to safety when they’re feeling something that feels decidedly unsafe.
I often liken it to receiving a medical diagnosis.
I’m sure you’ve heard people who’ve been like “omg, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and now that I know what this is, I’ve been able to come up with a treatment plan and change how I approach work and home and all the things.”
Right? NOTHING CHANGED.
You’ve still got ADHD, but now that it has a name, you’re able to more effectively manage it and deal with it, to plan for it.
Validating emotions does not make the emotions go away. It just makes them tangible and creates the conditions for being able to manage them.
How do we validate emotions the right way?
Step 1 is to Speak to the Situation, NOT the Emotions!
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I know this sounds ridiculous because we’re validating emotions but stick with me.
The common idea of validating emotions seems to be to identify the feeling, right?
“You seem upset.”
“You seem frustrated.”
“You’re mad.” etc.
Just take a hot second and think how infuriating it would be if you were feeling overwhelming rage and someone dear in your life came in and said “Wow, you seem really upset.”
You’d be like “NO SHIT SHERLOCK!” Right? DUHHH!
Great, you have functioning eyeballs good for you. Right?
It’s likely going to escalate you because when we’re in that deep emotional state.
Our neocortex goes offline. Emotions are in the limbic system and the limbic system has dibs on all our energy.
We don’t need knowledge and language to keep us alive, we need emotions and our security system. So when someone waltzes in and labels your emotions your brain doesn’t know what to do with it because the part that processes language is locked up in the attic.
Rather than labelling your child’s emotions, speak to the desire to the situation at hand.
Usually with little ones this starts with “You really wish.”…because they want something they can’t have or do.
“You really wish Mama would let you eat candy before breakfast.”
“You really wish that we could go to the zoo today.”
“You really wish that it wasn’t raining so we could go to the park.”
“You really wish I would let you stay up late to watch a movie.”
Think of it as translating your emotion.
It’s basically saying “I see WHY you’re feeling this way.”
I see the problem from your perspective. Often when you speak to the situation at hand, you’ll get them doing one of those shuddering “yeahh..”s. BUT!! We’re not done yet. Because just because you recognize the problem, doesn’t mean the problem is solved.
Step 2 is Set Boundaries and Facilitate.
Facilitation is what is really going to validate emotions.
Emotions are verbs.
Trying to address emotions by describing them, by using adjectives, is unlikely to work.
Actions require ACTION.
That’s why when you’re feeling really shitty you want someone to tell you what to do about it.
That’s why so many of us manically clean when we’re upset even if we wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning pretty much any other time.
It’s why, when kids get upset, they throw things, hit, bite, run away, etc. we need to do something about this feeling…but then almost everything that feels instinctual to do is condemned.
We’re not allowed to hit, bite, run away, yell, throw things, right?
This is where we show them what to do about it.
Now is when we label the emotion while validating it, and then give active acceptance by setting boundaries.
There’s 3 kinds of active acceptance:
The first is if their actions need a container.
They’re hitting, biting, throwing, trying to run away, all those “dangerous” behaviours. Their actions aren’t the problem, the container is.
We’re going to use boundaries to create a safe container for that emotional expression:
“it’s okay to be mad, but I won’t let you hit me, if you need to hit something you can hit the couch.”
You’re saying what is and is not acceptable, while still letting them do it.
You’re not stopping the hitting, you’re just telling them what they can hit. “I can see you’re frustrated, but I won’t allow you to throw LEGO at the window.
If you need to smash the LEGO, you can throw it into this bucket.” In that case- literally giving them a container.
The second is if what they’re doing is okay, but where they’re doing it is not.
The container is okay, it’s just in the wrong place. We’re moving the container.
“it’s okay to be angry, but you cannot scream in public. If you need to yell we can go to the car.”
If you need to yell at the sky, that’s cool- but doing it in a crowded area and destroying everyone’s enjoyment isn’t. So let’s go to the car where you can yell your head off and it won’t disrupt anyone else.
Moving the container or if you’re inside, let’s go outside.
“You really wish that we could stay at the beach longer. I can’t let you throw sand at people, if you need to throw sand let’s go to the other end of the beach.”
Moving them away from people. You’re moving the container.
The last is if their action and container are fine where they are.
It’s just accepting their emotional expression.
“it’s okay to be upset, I’m here when you’re ready.”
“You really wish we could go to the park. You were so looking forward to it. When you’re ready, come find me and we can think of something fun to do instead.”
You’re creating the space for those emotions to come out in a safe way and before anyone comes at me with ‘We shouldn’t be allowing children to hit or throw things no matter what!”
That’s just misplaced moralizing.
I get it, we want non-violent adults, and there was a feminist theory in the 60s and 70s that if we sheilded children from any kind of violence, if we pretended violence doesn’t exist, it’s not a thing, then it would go away and women would be safe.
The research shows that that is actually one of the biggest failed social experiments of all time.
When imaginary violent media went away, real crime soared.
When “violent” media came back in the 80s and 90s, violent crime rates plummeted.
We are wired to protect ourselves physically to act on our emotions.
Your moral objection to that does not make it go away, and we now know that morally condemning physical expression of emotion causes massive mental health issues.
Adults act on our emotions physically all the time.
We go to the gym and we punch punching bags or wrestle or run.
We play sports that require us to throw and hit things why do you think athletes are always channelling their emotions into their sports?
Why there’s all these inspirational stories all over the place of kids who are involved in drugs and street fighting getting involved with athletics and turning their lives around?
But little kids can’t be like “okay Mum Timmy really pissed me off at pre-k today so I need to go to 9Round before dinner and pretend the punching bag is Timmy’s smug face.”
They have neither that self-awareness yet, nor that level of control over their lives.
We need to facilitate that for them. Yes, right now at 3/4/5 years old they need that in the moment, in their home.
As they get older and their emotional control improves and their capacity improves, that will evolve into more structured, timed activities.
Finally, Step 3 is regulate yourself.
An escalated adult cannot deescalate an escalated child.
Generally, when our kids are feeling dysregulated we’re feeling dysregulated too because we’re tapped into their limbic resonance.
You need to take care of yourself.
Once you’ve facilitated you need to take care of yourself or else it’ll become a vicious cycle.
The easiest way to do this is deep breathing, but you may need to go scream into a pillow or hit a punching bag or go for a run or whatever.
This will reinforce for them that when Mom or Dad is feeling a big emotion, they actively do something about it too! If you both express your emotions similarly, do it together!
My kids and I punch our punching bags together all the time.
My husband and my oldest son run together all the time.
The important thing is not to just white-knuckle it and stuff your own emotions down and power through it.
Give yourself the same active acceptance you give your kids.
What this does, over time, is teach our children how to handle their emotions actively and let me tell you it is absolutely amazing when you’re consistent with it and suddenly you realize your children are managing their emotions themselves.
I clearly remember the first time my oldest was so angry about something and growled out “UGHHHH, FINE, if I can’t play on my computer right now then I’m going for a run!” and put his shoes on and went into the back yard and started doing laps.
Another example: first time my youngest got really really mad about what was for dinner and said “If I can’t throw my dinner out I’m going to throw my beanbags!” and went into our basement and threw beanbags at the target we have on the wall until he calmed down…and then he came back and ate everything on his plate!
This takes time and repetition and consistency, but if you can stick to it.
If you can speak to the situation, facilitate and set boundaries, and keep yourself calm…they will learn to do it.
I hope that fleshes out the concept of “validating emotions” for you.
As always your questions or comments are welcome and I encourage you to come join us in the Parenting Posse FB group to talk it out and clarify anything that you’re unsure of. It always sounds easy in theory, but you won’t be the last parent to go to put it into practice and realize there’s some holes in your knowledge so the Posse is there to help you plug that gap!