“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 or our children.
Whenever someone feels bad, we want to say something to make them feel better instantly.
Did you know invalidating someone’s feelings makes them feel even worse?
Emotional invalidation by parents may be especially 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 childhood2.
- 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 examples of childhood emotional invalidation and why they can hurt one’s feelings even more.
Emotional invalidation statements
- “It’s ok. Only a small cut. It doesn’t hurt.”
- “I’ve had it worse.”
- “Other people have had worse.”
- “At least it’s not…”
- “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.”
Emotional invalidation actions
- 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
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. The parents invalidate because they 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.
They are uncomfortable dealing with feelings
People sometimes dismiss someone’s feelings since they don’t know how to deal with them or are uncomfortable facing them.
They disregard others’ feelings
There are parents who lack empathy, whether it is for another adult or their own children.
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 feelings3.
They deny being the reason
In cases where the child has negative feelings about the parents, the parents may refuse to acknowledge them because they do not want to admit or accept responsibility.
Psychologically controlling parents invalidate and manipulate their children’s emotional experiences and emotional expressions. They often intrude on the social-emotional development of the child4,5.
Consequences of emotional invalidation
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 to learn regulating skills. Instead, children learn to suppress their emotions in a maladaptive way6.
Children with emotion regulation difficulties and chronic emotional inhibition tend to have mental health issues including depression, anxiety7, and eating disorders8.
In an invalidating childhood environment, children are unable to learn how to regulate their intense emotions. These children may rely on impulsive, short-term, and avoidant strategies in order to cope with strong emotions.
In fact, home environmental invalidation is associated with symptoms of borderline personality disorder in children with emotional vulnerabilities9,10.
Adolescents’ self-harm behavior also has positive associations with childhood invalidation11.
The negative impact of invalidation can be very long-lasting.
In its most extreme form, invalidation of emotion such as severe parental criticism, embarrassment, and humiliation of a child can be regarded as emotional abuse12.
How parents can validate their children’s emotions
Taking a child’s emotions 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 give different responses to situations.
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, remember the following.
- 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.
- You don’t (and shouldn’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) you don’t have to 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 steps 2 and 3 or use different variations of them.
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.
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 is how.
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.
Ignore someone who tells you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”
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, be careful about who 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.
You may also find that validating your child’s feelings is healing for you.
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