Tell me about it

Fall is in the air and with that comes a new school year and the familiar “back to school feeling.”   As parents, we often have a “to do list” to prepare our children for the upcoming school year. This may include a new backpack, notebooks, folders, binders, and sneakers; But what about a new perspective, awareness, and attitude towards our children’s challenges?   Our kids are growing up in a society that is busier and more distracted than previous generations.  How we listen, respond and engage in their world is more important than ever, to both the child and the parent.   The simple act of validating their experiences and feelings can make all the difference for your child in helping them successfully navigate through this school year and beyond.

Ask any teen what they want most and they’ll probably say a new phone, or a car, right? Wrong. The fact is in my 25 years of working with teens the vast majority answer this question by saying they want their parents to listen to them, and to understand them.

Easier said than done though, right? I’m a therapist, but I’m also a parent of two adolescents. In my practice, I listen and help problem solve when teens struggle, but in my kitchen I often can’t even hear what my kids are trying to say to me.

Why is this?

As parents, we are so invested in outcomes that we tend to react in an emotional way. Whether due to concern or frustration, we act as if what our teen says is somehow wrong and needs to be corrected. This leaves us unable to validate our kids, and when we don’t validate them, they often respond in one of two ways: shutting down themselves or becoming defensive and unreasonable.

Sometimes it’s easier to see how unhelpful our attitude can be when we consider how we interact with our adult friends. For instance, if your good friend told you over coffee that she and her husband were divorcing, imagine her reaction if this were your response:

“Don’t feel bad, more than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce!”

Or, how about this:

“I told you that if you continued to blow off date nights he’d leave you!”

Or, consider this:

“Oh, can you hang on, I just need to respond to this text – it’ll just be a second.”

Absurd, right? You would never talk to a friend this way. You would show concern, compassion and support. Often though, we don’t do this when we are interacting with our kids.

Consider this example. Your son comes home with a D in history, throwing his backpack on the kitchen floor and drinking straight from the milk carton as he starts to tell you how unfair school is.

“I can’t even believe I got a D in history, that teacher is so mean and hates me”.

Below are some typical responses:

“I’ve been telling you for weeks to study for that class. It’s your own fault”

“Sweetie, it’s only one grade out of many. You’ll do better next time, don’t worry about it.”

“I’ve heard other people complain about that teacher. I’m going to email her right now.”

None of these responses are validating. The first response sends the message that you know everything, and your teen is incompetent. The second may intend to be consoling, but may come off as minimizing or dismissive of the teens’ feelings. The third response is an attempt to solve the problem for them, robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to navigate future challenges.

In order to best support our teens, we need to think carefully about what validation means, and how we can employ this technique in our daily interactions.

Validation communicates to another person that their feelings, thoughts and experiences make sense. Validation does not mean agreement but it does mean accepting another person’s feelings without judgment. By validating your teen, you’re not only conveying that you understand their emotions and experiences, in some cases you may be helping them to actually discover and make sense of these feelings.

Let’s look at what validation might look like between a teen and a parent in the above scenario.

“It sounds like you’re feeling really frustrated with that grade.”

“Yeah,” the teen might answer, “I am frustrated, it seems like no matter what I do I can’t get a good grade in this class.”

“Huh, that’s hard. You’ve tried a lot of things and still aren’t seeing the grades you want”

“Right. Maybe I could stay after school and get some extra help before the next test”

Validation keeps the lines of communication open and shows that you really understand where your teen is coming from.

How can we validate others?

  • Actively listen, make eye contact and stay focused (put your phone away!).
  • Be mindful of your tone of voice and your non-verbal reactions (be careful of eye rolling and heavy sighs).
  • Look for the feelings behind what they are saying. For example, “I see that you are discouraged”.
  • Reflect back what you are hearing without judgment and with kindness. I often think, “would I talk to my best friend like this?”

Finally, don’t forget about self-validation. It’s ok to give yourself nonjudgmental acceptance of your own feelings, thoughts and actions!

Beth Mintz is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who has been working with teens in the schools for 25 years. Stay tuned for more information about parent/teen workshops at Release Wellness Center.