How do I validate a child’s feelings?

“Okay,” you’re asking me. “We should validate a child’s feelings, even if they seem silly to us. What does this look like in practice?”

I’m going to post some examples as a follow-up to my last post about treating a child’s feelings as valid.

Three-and-a-half years ago: Ibrahim is one, and Abdullah is 7. I’m going to be honest here. Reading this now is making me cringe because I’ve fallen way off the wagon and need a boost to become more patient and empathetic. So consider this story a lesson for me as well!–

Abdullah was laying on my lap one day when Ibrahim, tired and jealous, lunged at him. He bit Abdullah’s stomach and dug his nails into him, then swung his little hands at him in frustration. I peeled Ibrahim off of Abdullah, and Abdullah yelled out in anger, “Bad! Bad, bad Ibrahim!”

“You’re really angry at Ibrahim right now,” I said.

Abdullah continued, “He’s bad! I don’t like him!”

I told him, “I hear that you’re really angry right now. I can’t let you talk like that in front of him though because those words are hurtful. Would it help you to have a pen and paper and write out what you are feeling?”

Abdullah nodded, and I handed him a pen and paper. He poured out all kinds of angry, frustrated scrawls in the manner of a typical seven-year-old boy. To be honest, some of the things he wrote made me cringe. But then I told him that this is the thing with feelings–they feel really big and awful right now, but they are like waves: they come and go. “You feel all these things right now and these waves are crashing down on you, but they’ll wash away at some point, and this writing helps to get the feelings out.”

“They’re still there–they haven’t come out,” he muttered.

“And that’s fine, too. It takes time.”

I tried really hard in this situation to just listen–to let him express what he felt, while still holding a firm limit about his behavior (my main limit is “No hurting people or property”). This is new for me, as my response would normally have been to dismiss (“Oh, he doesn’t understand, you’re okay,”) or distract (“Hey, let’s just look at this book!”).

It was a small incident, but it sent a lot of positive messages to Abdullah:
* Sometimes I have big and wild feelings, and it’s normal
* I can’t hurt people or damage things when I feel out of control, and I can trust my mom to protect me from doing that
* I can feel safe confiding my angry thoughts to my mom.
* I know that I can use writing to help deal with my feelings.
* I know that feelings come and go, even big feelings.

You can see here that acknowledging feelings and offering constructive skills is a powerful way to help a child develop maturity, social skills, and self-regulation.

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