Your BIG emotions are OK! Child Life Specialist Shares How Parents Can Validate Their Children's Emotions
Validation is not difficult, but as a parent and caregiver, it does take practice and intentionality. Child Life Specialist Ashley Pagenkopf shares how to practice validation with your children.
Child Life Specialist Series: In the coming months, we will dive deeper into children’s expression of emotions, the validation of children’s emotions and experiences (including tears), and what it looks like to advocate for our children in all settings.
By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's
I have a middle schooler in my home for the first time this year. I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months deciphering the BIG emotions that middle school inevitably brings. It can take some time to get to the real emotion, the real issue. But once we do, I am often reminded of how hard middle school is and that none of it makes sense. Still – all these years later – middle school is still dumb. The only thing left to do is to agree with my daughter about how dumb it really is. So that’s what I try to do – I try to validate her very big emotions…most of the time.
What is validation?
If you are wondering what validation is, that’s OK. We are all learning as we go. (This is an example of validation.) The dictionary defines validation as the “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.”
Validation plays a significant role in children feeling known and understood and creating an emotionally safe environment in the healthcare setting and at home. When a child can feel understood and heard, they have space to begin to cope with the emotion they are feeling. Without that space, it is very easy for any of us to get wrapped up in the emotion and not be able to find our coping skills. Once we can help children name their emotions more effectively and affirm that their emotion is valid, we will begin to see children regulate their own emotions more effectively.
Often our children’s big emotions and feelings are met with our own big emotions or feelings, not validation. It is easy to be frustrated and overwhelmed by others’ emotions. As we explore emotional safety among our children, we have to recognize the importance of validation. Children cannot feel emotionally safe if we dismiss their emotions.
I work with children and families in an environment where emotions are always big – the emergency room. All areas of the hospital and doctor’s offices can produce big emotions in our kiddos. It may be helpful to hear what is *not* validating and does not promote emotional safety in the healthcare environment or at home.
- Threatening is not validating. As parents, we love the “if you don’t _____, then ____” statements. One we often hear as child life specialists is “if you don’t stop crying, they will give you a shot.” This does not help anyone. Not only does this break trust with the health care professionals trying to help your child, but it also intensifies fear amid a child’s already high emotions. Health care professionals are there to help, and a shot may be necessary at some point. Shots are not punishment. We don’t want to punish children in any way for their emotions. Instead, we want to teach them how to cope with them.
- Promising things is not validating. It is a basic rule in the health care environment not to make promises. Honestly as a parent, there is little that I can promise will or won’t happen. Statements like “If you just do this, then we will go home” does not validate your child’s emotions. This only establishes an expectation that no one in the room can promise. It is not wrong to want to promise these things to try to de-escalate your child, but this also can break trust and give children false hope when a promise cannot be met.
- Disengaging or leaving is not validating. Often when our children are expressing intense emotions, it is super easy to check out – emotionally or physically. We don’t want to engage the emotions either out of embarrassment, fear of making it worse or we feel the same way and cannot control our own emotions. However, what we communicate to our kids when we disengage is that they are too much and that we can’t be there for them.
These are all responses that happen as we struggle to know what to do as parents. We are desiring to de-escalate the moment, and truthfully we just want to be on the other side of it.
Let’s explore how validation can not only de-escalate the moment, but it also gives our children language to their feelings. It creates a space between the emotion and the moment which allows them to regulate their own emotions more effectively.
- Let your presence be validating. The way you show up for your child matters. Practice being with them amid their emotions. This does not mean matching your child’s emotions. This means staying, listening, and hearing them. It means comforting them and engaging them in the midst of their big emotions. Even if you don’t understand what they are feeling, you can be there to recognize and affirm their emotions.
- Let your words be validating. You can use normalizing language like “It is OK to be scared, worried, etc…” or “Most kids feel anxious about…” or “I remember feeling nervous about…” When you can normalize how kids are feeling, it reminds them that they are not alone and that others have felt these feelings and still been able to keep going. I often remind kids that it is totally normal to feel afraid of an IV or needles. Most kids have some amount of fear of getting an IV or poke. This one statement of validation often changes the tone of a room. Also, let your language be reflective. You can reflect back to them what you are seeing and hearing. “I see that you are feeling nervous about this…” or “This is a lot of information to process. I bet you are feeling a little overwhelmed.” If your child is telling you their emotions, you can reflect back on what they are saying to you. “You are wishing that you could go home” or “You don’t want to do this again and you are totally over this.” Just the recognition of emotion allows room for emotional regulation and being able to put the emotion in its proper place.
Validation is not difficult, but as a parent and caregiver, it does take practice and intentionality. Often it does not come naturally. However, the more time that you spend practicing validating your child, you will find it easier and easier. Validating our kids can be hard, but you’ve got this! ;)
1. Stop crying!
2. You will be fine.
3. Be a big boy/girl.
4. You’re making this harder than it needs to be.
5. It could be worse.
1. It is okay to be sad and frustrated. Can you take some deep breaths?
2. This is super hard. Let’s find a way to make it through this moment.
3. You are being incredibly brave!
4. This is not easy!
5. I know this has been a tough day and you’ve had to do lots of hard things.
Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf
Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.