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Emotional Invalidation: Why Invalidating Kids’ Feelings Can Hurt Them

| What is emotional invalidation | Examples | Why parents invalidate | Consequences | How parents can validate their children’s emotions | How to cope with your own childhood emotion invalidation |

“I feel terrible.”

“Oh, no. You shouldn’t feel that way because… You should look at it differently…”

It’s a conversation we’ve all had, whether with friends, family members, or our children. 

Whenever someone feels bad, we want to say something to make them feel better instantly.

Did you know invalidating feelings makes people feel worse, not better?

Being invalidated by parents may be especially damaging to a child’s mental health.

girl cries while dad ignores

What is emotional invalidation

Emotional invalidation is the explicit or implicit rejection, minimization, or dismissal of one’s feelings. Feelings of invalidation are associated with problems in a child’s social-emotional development and psychological distress in adulthood ​1​.

There are generally three types of invalidation in childhood​2​.

  1. Punitive – Punishing a child or restricting their privileges
  2. Minimizing – Dismissing the importance of the child’s emotion or redirecting their attention without first addressing the real issue
  3. Distress – Parents themselves become dysregulated, for example, lashing out, in response to the child’s negative emotion
girl with scraped knee gets emotional invalidation by mother

Examples of invalidation

Here are some signs of emotional invalidation and why they can hurt a person’s feelings.

Common phrases that invalidate feelings include:

  • “It’s ok. It’s only a small cut. It doesn’t hurt.”
  • “I’ve had worse.”
  • “Other people have had worse.”
  • “At least it’s not <other horrible things>”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “It’s only a toy. No big deal.”
  • “It doesn’t matter. Let it go.”
  • “It’s only a small scratch. Deal with it.”
  • “Why do you dwell on it?”
  • “Forget it. Time heals.”
  • “I don’t understand why you feel that way.”
  • “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,”
  • “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Actions that are signs of invalidation:

  • Sends the child to her room
  • Punish the child
  • Keep looking at their watch or cellphone
  • In a hurry to wrap up the conversation
  • Change the subject
  • Start talking about themselves and how they dealt with it better
boy suffers when his feelings invalidated as a child

Why parents invalidate

Parents who invalidate their children’s feelings do so for a variety of reasons, some of which are innocent, while others are abusive.

They consider it unimportant

It is not uncommon for children to get upset about things that adults don’t even notice. Parents who invalidate have a difficult time empathizing with their children and agreeing with their feelings.

They misunderstand how emotions work

Most parents who ignore their children’s feelings think that if you don’t see it, you won’t feel it. They, therefore, sweep their children’s feelings under the rug in an attempt to make them disappear.

Telling a child to “Don’t feel bad. It’ll go away” is like telling them “Don’t feel hungry. It’ll go away.” The latter is absurd, right? But so is the former. Feelings won’t go away until the issues are addressed.

They are uncomfortable dealing with feelings

People sometimes dismiss others’ feelings because they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions if they come up.

They disregard others’ feelings

There are parents who lack empathy, whether it is for another adult or their own children. They don’t care or don’t want to provide emotional support.

Their own belief about having emotions

Some parents, especially those who have sons, think that having or showing negative emotions are signs of weakness.

Their lack of emotional regulation

Parents who have a hard time validating others also tend to lack emotion regulation themselves. They are easily dysregulated when confronted with their children’s negative feelings​3​.

They deny being the reason

In cases where the child has an emotional reaction to the parents, the parents may refuse to acknowledge it because they do not want to admit or accept responsibility.

Controlling invalidation

Psychologically controlling parents invalidate and manipulate their children’s emotional experiences and emotional expressions. They often intrude on the social-emotional development of the child​4,5​.

girl sits on ground with lack of validation in childhood

Effects of invalidation in Children

The way parents react to their children’s negative emotions can profoundly impact their social-emotional development and psychological health outcomes later in life.

Positive responses from parents to negative emotions help children accept and manage those emotions. 

When parents discourage their children from expressing emotions through dismissive, punitive, or emotional responses, children learn to suppress their overt emotions. However, they still need to deal with those emotions internally without acquiring the skills to regulate them.

Experiences with emotion invalidation make it harder for children to resolve their emotional issues and learn regulating skills. Instead, an invalidated child learns to suppress their emotions in a maladaptive way​6​.

Chronic emotional inhibition can affect a person’s psychological health and sense of self-worth. Thought suppression can cause mental health issues including depressive symptoms, anxiety​7​, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder​8​ .

When children cannot learn to regulate their intense emotions in an invalidating childhood environment, they may rely on impulsive, short-term, and avoidant emotion regulation strategies.

Psychological invalidation is associated with the development of borderline personality disorder in children with emotional vulnerabilities​9,10​ such as high sensitivity.

Adolescents’ self-harm behavior also has positive associations with parental invalidation​11​.

The negative impact of invalidation can last for a long time.

In its most extreme form, severe parental criticism, embarrassment, and humiliation of a child can be regarded as a form of emotional abuse​12​. It is also childhood maltreatment if it is done as a form of manipulation or gaslighting.

parents unvalidating girl by ignoring her distress

How parents can validate their children’s emotions

Taking a child’s emotional needs seriously goes against what most of us were taught as kids. Getting used to it can be hard. 

But if we want our children to grow into compassionate people with healthy emotions, we must make a conscious effort to respond differently.

The act of validating our children is also a way of teaching them how to respect others as we are respecting their feelings.

When validating, do the following.

  • The first step is to really listen to their words, tone, and most likely the pain in them.
  • Attune to their emotions. For example, if they’re crying, you shouldn’t laugh.
  • You don’t have to agree with their feelings. It’s not about you.
  • Don’t offer a solution unless you’re asked.
  • Don’t compare their feelings. It’s not a competition.
  • If you’re the target of the emotion (e.g. mad at you), don’t be defensive. Because it’s not about you.

Validating someone’s feelings is about acknowledging and accepting their existence even if you don’t agree with them. Again, it’s not about you. 

When you show your acceptance, your child will also accept their own feelings and start working through them adaptively.

The next time your child approaches you with an emotional statement or reaction, here is what you can do.

Step 1 Acknowledge

To acknowledge, you can repeat what they say or describe what you see.

“You are hurting. I hear you.”

“You lost your toy. I saw that.”

“It broke. And it’s your favorite card.”

“That boy pushed you. It happened over there, right?”

Step 2 – Label their feelings and describe them from the child’s perspective

“You are so upset.”

“It feels unfair.”

“That makes you so angry.”

“It must be painful to carry all those hurt feelings inside.”

Step 3 – Stay with them

At this point, you don’t have to say more. But if you want, you can repeat step 2 once or use different variations of those statements, but do not overdo it.

Then, stay with them and give them time to process. This is when they try to make sense of their emotions, accept them, and move on.

Becoming a witness to their emotions is the best way to support their emotion regulation development.

If you want to teach them a different point of view or explain the reasons behind the emotional event, save it for later. Dedicate this time to helping them learn to regulate their emotions.

mother tries to cheer up sad son who is doing homework and the effects of emotional invalidation in relationships

How to cope with your own childhood emotion invalidation

Parental invalidation can be a painful memory. If you are a grownup dealing with your experiences of childhood invalidation, here are some tips.

Your emotions are valid.

Those who are dealing with the pain of childhood invalidation can take comfort in knowing that your feelings are completely valid.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to feel what you feel.

There are no right or wrong emotions.

We cannot control what we feel. We can only control how we act. Actions that come out of emotions can and should be controlled, but emotions cannot be. Just like “I am hungry” is not a wrong feeling that can be controlled or removed at will.

Ignore someone who tells you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

No one should feel in any certain way. We just do.

Feelings are not actions, but outcomes.

Not everyone can be your confidante

As a victim of invalidation, you may be more easily triggered by invalidation from someone in your current relationship.

People have traditionally been taught to disregard negative feelings and only celebrate positive ones. Someone might invalidate you without intending to.

Therefore, it’s great if you can find social support, but be careful about who you disclose your feelings to.

Validate your own feelings

Having relationships with people who care about your feelings, wish to understand you, and help you when you feel bad is very important. Yet, as an adult, you cannot always rely on external validation.

Develop the capacity to validate your own feelings and have positive self-talk.

If you’re a parent, you may also find that validating your child’s feelings is healing for you.

Also See: Common Gaslighting Phrases from Parents

Final thoughts on emotional invalidation

We often invalidate unknowingly because that’s the way we were raised. However, we crave validation at the same time. Take a look at how social media works, like Facebook. Users often post about their feelings to get “Likes”. Inherently, we all crave and need validation, but rarely give it to others. As your awareness rises, you can change it to benefit your child’s emotions.

References

  1. 1.
    Krause ED, Mendelson T, Lynch TR. Childhood emotional invalidation and adult psychological distress: the mediating role of emotional inhibition. Child Abuse &amp; Neglect. Published online February 2003:199-213. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00536-7
  2. 2.
    Eisenberg N, Fabes RA, Murphy BC. Parents’ Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to Children’s Social Competence and Comforting Behavior. Child Development. Published online October 1996:2227. doi:10.2307/1131620
  3. 3.
    Buckholdt KE, Parra GR, Jobe-Shields L. Intergenerational Transmission of Emotion Dysregulation Through Parental Invalidation of Emotions: Implications for Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors. J Child Fam Stud. Published online June 25, 2013:324-332. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9768-4
  4. 4.
    Barber BK. Parental Psychological Control: Revisiting a Neglected Construct. Child Development. Published online December 1996:3296. doi:10.2307/1131780
  5. 5.
    Nelson DA, Yang C, Coyne SM, Olsen JA, Hart CH. Parental psychological control dimensions: Connections with Russian preschoolers’ physical and relational aggression. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online January 2013:1-8. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2012.07.003
  6. 6.
    Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad TL. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychological Inquiry. Published online October 1998:241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
  7. 7.
    Purdon C. Thought suppression and psychopathology. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online November 1999:1029-1054. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(98)00200-9
  8. 8.
    Mountford V, Corstorphine E, Tomlinson S, Waller G. Development of a measure to assess invalidating childhood environments in the eating disorders. Eating Behaviors. Published online January 2007:48-58. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2006.01.003
  9. 9.
    Selby EA, Braithwaite SR, Joiner TE, Fincham FD. Features of borderline personality disorder, perceived childhood emotional invalidation, and dysfunction within current romantic relationships. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2008:885-893. doi:10.1037/a0013673
  10. 10.
    Sauer SE, Baer RA. Validation of Measures of Biosocial Precursors to Borderline Personality Disorder: Childhood Emotional Vulnerability and Environmental Invalidation. Assessment. Published online July 19, 2010:454-466. doi:10.1177/1073191110373226
  11. 11.
    Sim L, Adrian M, Zeman J, Cassano M, Friedrich WN. Adolescent Deliberate Self-Harm: Linkages to Emotion Regulation and Family Emotional Climate. Journal of Research on Adolescence. Published online March 2009:75-91. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2009.00582.x
  12. 12.
    Kuo JR, Linehan MM. Disentangling emotion processes in borderline personality disorder: Physiological and self-reported assessment of biological vulnerability, baseline intensity, and reactivity to emotionally evocative stimuli. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Published online August 2009:531-544. doi:10.1037/a0016392

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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