- What is emotional invalidation
- Why parents invalidate feelings
- How to validate a child’s feelings
- How to deal with childhood emotional 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 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 feelings by parents may be incredibly damaging to a child’s mental health.
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
- Punitive – Punishing a child or restricting their privileges
- Minimizing – Dismissing the importance of the child’s emotion or redirecting their attention without first addressing the real issue
- Distress – Parents themselves become dysregulated, for example, lashing out in response to the child’s negative emotion
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
Why parents invalidate feelings
Parents who invalidate their children’s feelings do so for various 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.
The invalidating parents have difficulty 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.
Therefore, they sweep their children’s feelings under the rug 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. 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
Some parents 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 with sons, think that having or showing negative emotions are signs of weakness.
Their lack of emotional regulation
Parents who have difficulty 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 reacts emotionally to the parents, the parents may refuse to acknowledge it because they do not want to admit or accept responsibility.
Psychologically controlling parents invalidate and manipulate their children’s emotional experiences and expressions.
They often intrude on the social-emotional development of the child.4,5
Effects of emotional invalidation by parents
How 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, anxiety7, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.8
Children who cannot learn to regulate their intense emotions in an invalidating childhood environment may rely on impulsive, short-term, and avoidant emotion regulation strategies.
Invalidation of feelings is associated with developing borderline personality disorder in children with emotional vulnerabilities9,10 , 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 done as a form of manipulation or gaslighting.
How to validate a child’s feelings
Taking a child’s emotional needs seriously goes against what most of us were taught.
Getting used to it can be hard.
But if we want our children to grow into compassionate people with healthy emotions, we must consciously respond differently.
Validating our children also teaches them how to respect others as we respect their feelings.
When validating, do the following.
- The first step is to listen to their words, tone, and, most likely, their pain.
- 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.
- Don’t be defensive if you’re the target of the emotion (e.g., mad at you) because it’s not about you.
Validating someone’s feelings is about acknowledging and accepting their existence, even if you disagree.
Again, it’s not about you.
When you show your acceptance, your child will also accept their 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.
Witnessing 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.
How to deal with 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 dealing with the pain of childhood invalidation can take comfort in knowing their feelings are entirely 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 from emotions can and should be controlled, but emotions cannot.
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 to whom you disclose your feelings.
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 by parents
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.
You can change your habits to benefit your child’s emotions as your awareness rises.
- 1.Krause ED, Mendelson T, Lynch TR. Childhood emotional invalidation and adult psychological distress: the mediating role of emotional inhibition. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online February 2003:199-213. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00536-7
- 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.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.Barber BK. Parental Psychological Control: Revisiting a Neglected Construct. Child Development. Published online December 1996:3296. doi:10.2307/1131780
- 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.Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad TL. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychological Inquiry. Published online October 1998:241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
- 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.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.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.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.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.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