How you comfort your teen really matters, but most of us grew up with emotionally invalidating statements. Here are strategies to validate your teen’s emotions the next time they come to you with big feelings.
Have you ever said “Get over it”, “At least it’s not…” or “You shouldn’t feel bad!” to your teen? Research shows that children who grow up hearing phrases like these often have challenges with regulating their emotions as they grow up.
Parents often believe that they are comforting their teen with these phrases by providing perspective or showing their teen "tough love." However, while you may know the situation is not as grave as your teen makes it out to be, the situation could still feel colossal to your teen who may hear your words as criticism rather than comfort. In response to this perceived criticism, many teens cope by internalizing their feelings as wrong, morphing “unacceptable” emotions (such as anger) into other outlets, or building protective mechanisms against attachment and love.
No matter what the intention is, phrases that imply your teen’s emotions are wrong or unimportant is a form of emotional invalidation. Researchers classify chronic emotional invalidation as a form of emotional neglect, which is the failure to notice a child’s emotions or a failure to respond to a child’s emotional needs. Emotional invalidation in childhood and adolescence has been linked to a lower ability to regulate emotions and a variety of maladaptive outcomes, such as self-harm, eating disorders, and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Of course, no parent intends to emotionally neglect their child. Parents often comfort by minimizing situations or emotions because they don’t want to see their teen struggle with conflict or appear “weak.” They may even believe that if their teen can’t handle this, then their teen won’t be able to handle “worse” things in life. After all, the most common parenting goal is to raise responsible adults who are capable of taking on the world. The counterintuitive truth is that since you can’t shield your teen from every hurdle, you can help your teen develop critical self regulation skills by letting them feel their big emotions and acknowledging their challenges.
At this point, you may be wondering whether there’s anything you can do to turn this around. There is!
Begin by reflecting on your responses to your teen expressing emotions. Are you comfortable accepting their emotions? Or do you question their emotions and jump to help them find solutions? More often than not, teens are looking for empathy when they vent, so hearing and accepting your teen’s emotions is a double win - you’re practicing emotional validation and connecting with your teen.
If you find it difficult to accept your teen’s emotions, get curious about your own feelings towards the subject. Do you find it hard to relate? Perhaps you are still learning to validate your own emotions or are driven out of anxiety about your child’s future? If so, how might these obstacles impact your ability to accept your child’s big feelings? Understanding the root cause behind the urge to minimize a teen’s feelings will help identify the steps needed to turn things around.
Although “Get over it” may stem from parents wanting to raise a mature teen capable of handling their emotions, it may be doing the opposite. As a parent, it’s okay not to have the answers, and instead, simply witness your teen’s emotional struggles.
Next time your teen comes to you with their feelings, try leaning in to the discomfort with questions like “Wow, that sounds really tough. Where’s this feeling coming from?” When they begin to elaborate on their feelings, try “Could you tell me more about that?” and “Why do you think you felt that way?” Phrases like these can show that you’re interested in listening to the situation from your teen’s perspective and that you’re invested in guiding them to a solution without immediately imposing your advice. This leaves your teen feeling that their emotions are valid, that their voice is heard, and most of all - that they matter.
If you’d like to chat with a coach about compassionate listening for you and your teen, Cherish is offering free coaching and curated community groups for parents with teens throughout COVID-19. And if you're interested in a personal parenting coach with Cherish, please sign up here! We’d love to hear from you!
Press the chin of an emoji below to give feedback!
Icons made by Icons8