Meeting in the Middle: How Parents and Adolescents Can Rebuild Their Relationship Using Validation Strategies
by Rachel Mahoney Rengifo, Ph.D.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was conceptualized as a treatment approach in which concrete coping strategies are identified and paired across four main domains that many people tend to struggle with; Mindfulness, Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. While these concrete coping strategies are meant to bring about positive behavioral changes, DBT also takes into account some of the many discrepancies that can occur within relationships. The word “dialectical” acknowledges that in all moments of life there are ebbs and flows of conflicting values and dynamics, with both sides of the coin being valid and true, despite being contradictory. Some real life examples of this are, wanting financial stability while carelessly spending, or wanting to be treated like an adult, but acting like a child.
In many ways, adolescence is a time of dialectics. Adolescents both need the support and guidance of their parents, and at the same time must achieve a sense of independence and personal mastery as they begin to appropriately individuate from their parents. The dialectics of adolescence continues, as many teens often push their parents away, refuse to divulge personal information, and crave privacy. Developmentally, teenagers struggle with finding ways to express the emotions they are experiencing, often feeling confused. A significant part of DBT treatment is helping both parents and adolescents identify when the dialectical moments occur within their relationship, and then finding a way to meet in the middle.
At The Koch Center, we strongly believe that validation is a vital part of the therapist/patient relationship, and we encourage both parents and adolescents to continually practice and be mindful of this outside of treatment. Validation occurs when we effectively listen and acknowledge another’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Validation is so powerful as it communicates a sense of authentic compassion and mirrors back to your child a sense of having his/her emotions witnessed. When parents fail to validate their teenager, by rejecting, belittling, or dismissing their feelings, communication breaks down and emotional walls begin to develop. When parents validate their teenager’s feelings, healing through communication begins, and teenagers start to model validation towards their parents in return. Validation then becomes a way to meet in the middle with regards to communication. Below are some thoughts on how everyday situations can lead to unintentional invalidation and the impact this may have.
Most parents want to actively support and help their teenager through difficult moments. As a parent, it can be painful to see your child suffer from overwhelming emotions or life stressors. Feelings of helplessness may take shape and parents easily can slip into “advice mode” when their teenager is talking to them about his/her struggles. “Slipping into advice mode” comes from a strong pull, as a parent, to want to fix or take away your child’s pain. However, this can be interpreted by your teenager as invalidating. What your teenager may need is someone to just listen, empathize, and witness what they are struggling with. When advice is too quickly given, it sends the message that one “needs to be fixed” and impedes the process of working through and finding solutions to distressing problems. This of course, assumes that your child is not asking for specific guidance. If that is the case, then parents should respond appropriately by providing advice, while also allowing their teenager the space to reject what they have offered, as they work towards finding a solution for themselves.
Another common pitfall with failing to validate, is denying the significance of a situation. Often, parents and adults try to make their child feel better by saying, “It’s not that bad” or “Everyone goes through this, you’ll get over it.” These messages minimize the child’s emotional experience. Likewise, when a young person is overly excited about a situation or achievement, and parents comment, “I don’t know why you are so excited…” it can crush a teenager and make them less willing to open up in the future. Adolescence is a time of “firsts” and adolescents need these firsts to be witnessed by the important people in their lives. Often parents feel that the best way to work with feelings is to change their child’s perspective. However, to help teenagers see things from a different perspective, they first need to feel acknowledged and given the emotional space to experience their feelings.
Another way that parents may invalidate their teenager’s feelings is by sending messages that it is not okay to express certain emotions or that there is a right or wrong way to feel. Often out of a strong desire to make their teenager’s emotional pain cease, a parent may comment, “I don’t like it when you are so sad.” Or if a teenager voices anger towards a parent, s/he may then be told, “It’s not nice to be angry.” When emotions are labeled as taboo or unacceptable, adolescents begin to judge their emotions in a similar way. This may lead to a suppression of emotions. As a result, adolescents are then left with strong emotions that have no outlet, and when experienced, may be accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt.
Parents can validate their teenager by becoming more mindful of their communication tendencies. If your teenager is sad, anxious, or mad, listen as they tell you what is going on. Reserve opinions and judgments about the situation and allow your adolescent the space to speak freely. Remember that being heard is what they are craving in the moment. Often they are in an emotional space and will not be able to hear your feedback until they feel they have been adequately heard. Let your child know you appreciate what they are sharing and try to refrain from jumping to solutions or giving advice. Help your teenager label his or her feelings. If s/he seems angry, gently comment on it in a way that is meant to encourage a continued dialogue of self-expression. Empathize and try to reflect back on how difficult and painful it was to be a teenager yourself. Use mindfulness skills to remain present, both physically and emotionally. As your teenager is talking to you, try to focus all your energy on really listening to what s/he is saying. Try to block the millions of other thoughts that may be running through your mind. Accept where your child is in the moment, without judging or feeling a need to fix something. Above all else, communicate that you are there for him/her. Validation does not mean that you agree with or approve of all of your child’s feelings, or even like what s/he is feeling, but that you are witnessing his/her emotional experience.