Raising a teenager can be one of the most challenging tasks of parenthood. One day you are raising a sweet, respectful child who loves to be with you, and the next, you are tiptoeing around your house hoping not to wake the bear. At some point during adolescence, many parents will classify interactions with their teen as unpredictable, confrontational, and/or dismissive. It is during these years teens and their parents often feel as though they are speaking different languages. And often, both parents and teens suddenly think talking louder, in a more animated way, will somehow get their points across.
After working with adolescents and their parents for almost a decade, I have found that my initial role as therapist is interpreter. From there, I work to help them learn each other’s languages so they can go back to healthy communication and connection. I have many tools in my toolbox to help parents and teens reconnect, but one of the most profound is validation.
Validation is the act of acknowledging another person’s thoughts and feelings and communicating to them that those thoughts and feelings make sense and are understandable given the situation. It is important to note validating is not the same as agreeing. Validation is important because it shows you are listening, you understand, and you are approaching the person in a nonjudgmental way.
Now, let us think about validation in terms of interactions with teenagers. When it comes to interacting with their parents, they often feel judged, unheard, and criticized. These perceptions frequently lead to conflict with their parents and/or withdrawal from interactions with them. When parents take time to validate (i.e., listen without judgment), teens often feel more open to having a conversation and more responsive to information being shared by parents.
Validation is disarming and encourages dialogue. In my experience, parents just want to talk with their children. Using validation can open those lines of communication again. Teens like to talk with people whom they feel understand them. The minute they sniff judgment or criticism, they may shut down or lash out. So, leading with validation can encourage connection.
When parents take time to validate (i.e., listen without judgment), teens often feel more open to having a conversation and more responsive to information being shared by parents.
Sounds easy, right? Well, validating a teen can be difficult for parents for many reasons. First, teens can seem somewhat irrational at times, and it can be challenging to find something to validate. Second, after weeks, months, or years of built-up frustrations and disagreements, it can be difficult to want to validate. Third, I have found parents often feel stuck on the idea that by validating they are somehow saying their teen’s behavior is okay and/or they agree with what their teen is saying. However, it is important to remember validation is a form of understanding, not agreeing. By validating, you are not saying your teen is right—you are simply using a tool to help start a dialogue and prevent a potential conflict.
According to Miller, Glinski, Woodberry, Mitchell, and Indik (2002), there are six levels of validation. Jeffrey B. Jackson, PhD, LMFT, adapted these levels and five of the six are shared below.
- Listen: Be attentive and listen in a nonjudgmental way.
- Reflect: Reflect back the thoughts and feelings shared by your teen. This helps them to feel heard. It also prevents miscommunication because they can correct any information they feel you did not hear correctly. It also allows them to hear their own thoughts and feelings out loud and may prompt them to start thinking a bit differently. Example: “I hear you say you are feeling overwhelmed right now because you have a lot of responsibilities.”
- Empathize: Share your best guess about your teen’s unspoken thoughts or feelings. Share how you might feel if you were in their shoes. Example: “If my parents told me they were worried about who I was hanging out with, I might feel angry and judged. Is that how you are feeling?”
- Acknowledge reasons for behavior: Try to reflect an understanding of the reasons for their behaviors. Example: “I can see why you would feel devastated after your friend cut you off. You really valued that friendship and didn’t feel you did anything wrong.”
- Acknowledge courage: Reinforce good judgment and acknowledge personal strength. Example: “It must take a lot of courage for you to try and make the best of this situation and try not to let it get you too upset.”
Think about the last time someone validated you in one of these ways. Didn’t it make you feel good? Didn’t you feel understood? Didn’t it make it feel safe to share more? We all crave validation, teens included. In fact, validation might just be the key to better communication and a happier household.
Adapted by Jeffrey B. Jackson, PhD, LMFT from Miller, A.L., Glinski, J., Woodberry, K.A., Mitchell, A.G., & Indik, J. (2002). Family therapy and dialectical behavior therapy with adolescents: Part I: Proposing a clinical synthesis. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 56(4), 568-584.
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