A universal need of human beings is to know that we are cared about and that our feelings and thoughts have value. Validation is the act of confirming those feelings and ideas. It bestows credibility to the person without judging their ideals. Dismissing someone’s point of view or offering alternative advice, even the solicited variety, tends to suggest that we are better able to solve their problem or assess their needs than they are.
Children in a stepfamily situation may need a parent to simply walk with them in their sadness or confusion. Not to set them straight or cheer them up; not to admit guilt or defend your actions but to simply weep with the weeping. Validation is verbalizing an understanding that a person is feeling the way they are. Validation almost always leads to conversation and openness where as criticism and attempts to change the feelings of another will eventually lead to an argument. Validation does not require abandoning your own value system, but it does require understanding that of another. The purpose is not to change their thinking but rather to eliminate their need to make a case for it.
Manipulation is learned at a young age and sadly, it is usually best taught by the example of adults. Manipulation is most effective in competitive situations such as with parents who cannot agree on rules and consequences. A child who complains of unfair treatment at the hands of another is expecting some relief from the non-offending adult. It is not unusual for that parent to take ownership of the problem and immediately launch an investigation and remedy. This is the exact intervention and cure that the child is seeking and the conflict that ensues is probably all too familiar in our blended homes, today.
While moms and dads are “fixers” by nature, and sometimes we get lucky and things do work out…the truth is that we do not have that power. And if we fool ourselves into thinking we do, it is a responsibility which destines us for failure. What we do possess however is the ability to empower our children to solve their own problems and validation is a great tool for that purpose.
Listening is the most important requirement of effective validation. Really listening. It’s important because you are going to have to repeat some of the words and emotions you will hear as a problem is brought to your attention. The second (and for me, most difficult) element is to avoid offering your own ideas and suggestions for solving the dilemma. The following dialog is an example of how validation would play out in a situation such as the one above:
“Dad, every time I come here there’s a new rule in this house. Last week I couldn’t watch TV in my room and today she tells me I cannot go outside to play until my homework is done. When you and mom were together I always watched TV in my room and I did my homework after dinner. I hate these new rules and I hate coming here. I hate her.”
At this point, Dad has a decision to make. He can plead his son’s case to his new wife in hopes she will ease up on the rules. After all, the divorce and remarriage have been difficult enough for the child. This option carries the risk of offending his wife but it also requires Dad to take ownership of the problem. Or, he can discount his son’s feelings and concerns which in turn devalues him as a person. What if Dad uses some validation techniques?
“Son, I think I understand how you are feeling. It must be hard living in two different places with two different sets of rules. What do you think would help?”
“Well, maybe we could tell her about the rules we always had before and how they worked OK. Maybe we could ask her to let me try doing the same things here and see if it causes any problems?”
“Son, I really like your idea of dealing with this as a family.”
There is no magic in this approach and it comes with no guarantee, but if we want our kids to listen to us we need to listen to them. Instead of trying to control them we need to invite them into conversation and then honor them by listening and validating what they’re feeling. When we make changes in our behavior our children make changes in their responses.