In their legendary book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (1999), parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish humbly yet humorously admit, “I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.” How true is this? Can’t you relate? I know that I very much can!
Early in my career, when I was single and childless, I worked at a private school with children who were ages birth through fifth grade. I was eager to learn and to be helpful to my students’ parents, so I read every child development book and parenting book I could get my hands on. After all of this reading, I was bursting with facts, and I thought I “got it.” In a lot of ways, I really did! Head knowledge is important. However, knowing about things such as toilet training tricks, sleep time schedules, and limits and consequences only gets you so far.
Over the years, the more I have grown personally and professionally, the more firmly I believe that the key to good parenting is not about all the tricks and tactics. It’s not about saying or doing the right thing in each situation. Here it is, folks: good parenting starts with a secure, attuned, connected relationship with your children, and one sure way “in” is through effective listening and validation. That’s the foundation. It’s really that simple. The challenge, though, is that this “simple” skill takes conscious effort and patient endurance.
Often, when we speak about validation, our first thoughts go to things like parking tickets at the theater. For these purposes, validation means: communicating to someone – both verbally and nonverbally – that what they think, feel, believe, and experience is real, logical, and understandable. It does not mean you agree or approve, and it is always nonjudgmental. We validate others because it helps our relationships to be better, and it calms intense situations.
There are several “levels” to validation:
Each level has increasingly higher intensity and deepening connection. To clarify, these are not a series of steps to follow in sequential order. Think of these levels as options for increasing the degree of validation your child will experience; you can do one or more at any given time:
Pay attention and listen.
It can be discouraging to try to get through to someone who is only half listening. If your child is talking to you, that is not the time to be thinking about your grocery list, your upcoming meeting at work, or your weekend plans. Stop what you’re doing, turn toward your child, and maintain eye contact. Pay attention to your nonverbals. Nod or gently prompt with “Oh”… “Mmmm” … “I see…” Focus fully on your child with no judgments, no inner dialogue, and no sneak peeks at your phone! Even if you’ve repeatedly heard your six year-old tell you about Pokemon, stay present in the conversation. Do your best to appear interested. Keep in mind that as you stay open on mundane topics, your children will feel comfortable sharing the tough stuff.
This is where you can summarize or paraphrase back to your child what you heard him say to you. Use your child’s own words (change up some of the words so it doesn’t come across as mocking), and be careful not to add any extra interpretation. Be matter-of-fact, and remember that you don’t have to agree with their perceptions. Your goal is to convey that you understand the essence of what your child shared. Show genuine care as you do this, and check that what you’ve said is right. Ask, “Is that right?” or “Did I get it?” Your child will correct you if needed – just roll with it!
Put yourself in their shoes.
At this step, try to imagine what it’s like to be your child in the exact situation they’ve shared with you. Intuit the (likely unspoken) thoughts and feelings that may be below the surface. Truly try to understand with compassion, and try to “read” them. Articulate any thoughts and feelings that you believe your child may be experiencing, and check for accuracy. For example, “It sounds like maybe you’re feeling…” or “I wonder if you’re wishing…” As before, your child will let you know if you’ve gotten it right. Children who hear the words for what they are experiencing are deeply comforted, as someone has acknowledged their inner experience.
Communicate an understanding of the cause (based on history).
This is where parents’ knowledge of a child’s history comes in really handy because it allows you to understand the current behavior within the context of your child’s experience. For example, a parent may say, “I can understand that you’re scared of the DARE officer’s dog since the neighbor’s dog nipped you last summer” or “It makes sense to me that you’re nervous to ride the bus today since those kids picked on you yesterday.” Such statements communicate to a child, “I see you, I got you, I KNOW you.”
Acknowledge the valid in the present circumstances.
Here is where parents normalize what the child is thinking and feeling under the present circumstances. Look for the kernel of truth, and find the parts of your child’s response that seems reasonable. Communicate empathy and understanding above all else. This might sound like, “I think anyone in your shoes would feel that way” or “It’s normal to wish for that right now – it makes sense to me.”
Show equality, authenticity, and genuineness.
Be spontaneous and natural as you show your child how much you genuinely care about him. Here you are matching your child’s vulnerability, engaging in an authentic manner, and demonstrating your humanness. You might say, “The morning routine has been difficult for us, and I feel sad that we say good-bye on a bad note.” Your child will feel seen, he will see that you’re a real person with genuine feelings, and it will deepen the connection between the two of you.
As you’re listening to your children and practicing validating, remember to stay nonjudgmental, engaged, and calm. Even when (especially when!) you hear difficult, upsetting, or scary things, stay emotionally available and connected. Stop yourself from mounting a counter-argument in your mind. It can be especially tempting to interrupt with your own reaction or to prove a point. If you reply with a counter-argument, you will teach your children not to talk to you about “controversial” topics. Instead, try to respond with genuine curiosity. For example, you might be shocked to learn that your child has zero interest in the faith in which you and your partner have raised him. Your reflex may be to yell, scold, and then present him with all the evidence for why he is “wrong.” Consider, perhaps, that this is an ideal opportunity to respond with curiosity as a way to open him up. Go into – not away from – the conversation, and stay engaged with his feelings. Your willingness to dialogue and your attempts to validate kernels of truth on tough subjects will strengthen your relationships with your children. They will view you as approachable, empathetic, and understanding.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned or encouraged parents to give their children advice, suggestions, or ideas. Please resist the urge to offer these, at least when your child is initially sharing thoughts and feelings with you. No doubt – you have loads of wisdom to share with your children; keep in mind, though, that when they are seeking a validating or listening ear, they are not generally open to what you have to say. Offer your advice and recommendations only after you have listened and validated. Even then, you might say, “I have a suggestion. Would you like to hear it?” In all truth, it is often best to help children problem-solve and come up with their own ideas and solutions, rather than providing them. But that’s a topic for another blog post…