When Your Teen Is Upset, Try This Therapeutic Technique: Validation
Most parents of teens have had an experience like this: your teen is angry or upset, and you do not know what to do.
Simply validating your teen may be the key.
When you validate someone, you show that person that they are being seen and heard.
When people do not feel that they are being heard it can often cause an increased emotional response. They may become louder or more aggressive in their attempts to be heard. The situation can become more intense in unpleasant ways.
However, when people feel understood, they generally do not feel a need to escalate the situation, their emotions, and/or their volume.
Instead, using validation techniques encourages people to share their thoughts and feelings freely. That makes validation a useful tool for parents of troubled teens because it can often have a calming effect on otherwise contentious conversations.
Why Does Validation Work?
By showing your teen that you understand, you allow your teen to remain calm. You are providing yourself with the best opportunity to remain calm as well.
Difficult emotional conversations can be as challenging for you as they are for your teen. Practicing validation is one way that you can approach difficult conversations skillfully.
Having the goal of validating your teen encourages you to set aside preconceived notions. You are more likely to approach conversations with understanding, and even be able to negotiate when it is advantageous.
How Does Validation Work?
Validating your teen means creating a space in which you can show your teen that you are doing your best to understand where your teen is coming from—even if you do not agree with your teen’s ideas.
If a teen were to tell a parent something that the parent did not believe then the parent still can use validation techniques.
For example, if a teen were to express that all dogs were bad, then the parent could reply, “What I hear you saying is that all dogs are bad.”
The parent is not agreeing with the statement. The parent is only showing that the teen’s idea is understood. Showing the teen is heard and that the parents are paying attention can make all the difference between having a useless argument and having a positive conversation.
Returning to the dog example, if the teen told the parent all dogs are bad and the parent replied, “That is absurd! You know that is not true!” then proceeded to list good dogs that the parent had known, then that is an example of invalidation.
Invalidation is allowing a personal prejudice regarding a situation to affect your understanding of what the other person is trying to communicate.
That is not to suggest that the parent needs to accept that what the teen is saying is right. Validation is not about being right. It is about letting the other person know you understand.
By validating your teen you are showing that you are acknowledging your teen’s thoughts and feelings. Then you can have a conversation rooted in understanding.
Core Four Validation Techniques
John Buckener, LMFT, has suggestions for parents who want to practice validation techniques. He calls these validation techniques the core four.
Let your body language show that you are listening and accepting the situation.
The first step to validating your teen is simply to be present and pay attention. If you are not paying attention then your teen cannot help but notice.
Having open and attentive body language can go a long way to defusing potentially explosive conversations.
Check for understanding by repeating what the other person has said.
By repeating what you have been told, you are showing your teen that you are listening. It also allows you to confirm that you have understood the speaker.
When using this technique, try doing it in the most skillful way possible. For example, you may summarize the main ideas that you have been told or you may rephrase what the speaker has said.
However, if you are only able to parrot what your teen is telling you, then start there. You are still demonstrating to your teen that you are listening and helping to maintain calm communication.
Try to read between the lines of what is being said. Your teen may not be able to put their feelings into words. You can help by paying attention to your teen’s body language and what their words imply.
There is a risk in using this technique because your teen could feel invalidated if you get it wrong. You can reduce the risk by using certain phrasing, such as, “I might be wrong but tell me if I am close…”
Even if you are wrong, knowing that you are wrong can help you to have a more productive conversation by correcting what was misunderstood.
Consider how your teen’s experience influences their reactions.
A teen’s life experiences—or lack of life experiences—affect how they react to situations.
Teens lack the life experience of their parents. It is natural for parents to want to share the insight they have gained through experience with their teens. Unfortunately, teens are not likely to listen unless they feel like they are being heard.
While you are listening to your teen keep in mind how your teen’s experiences helped to shape their ideas.
For example, a teen believing that all dogs are bad is an irrational idea. However, it is an irrational idea that makes more sense if the teen has been bitten by dogs in the past.
Your teen is more likely to listen if they feel as if they are heard. You can help your teen feel heard by practicing validation.
Using validation techniques also gives you the chance to put aside your preconceived ideas about a situation and listen more skillfully.
Beyond Validation: Benefits of Wilderness Therapy
Therapists and staff members use validation techniques with students every day at RedCliff Ascent. It is one of the many reasons that wilderness therapy at RedCliff Ascent is effective in helping families with troubled teens to repair their relationships.
Wilderness therapy is what John Buckener, LMFT, calls “backdoor therapy.” Everything that happens at RedCliff Ascent has a clinical purpose but that purpose might not be obvious to an outside observer.
Issues that teens struggle with come up naturally while in the wilderness, and natural consequences happen more quickly in the wilderness than in the outside world.
In the outside world, teens can get adjusted to doing things halfway or cramming at the last moment. In the wilderness, that kind of behavior is more obviously ineffective. For example, if a student hesitates to build a rain shelter then that student will be rained on.
The challenging wilderness environment is balanced by building strong relationships between staff members and other students. Staff members are taught to build relationships through using a variety of therapeutic techniques, including validation.
During the letter-writing process, parents also have the opportunity to practice validation techniques with the help of a therapist. A therapist will guide parents through responding to letters from their teen.
Letter-writing enables parents to take time to consider their responses carefully. It provides a perfect opportunity to practice being willing to accept feedback.
Give it practice and be willing to accept feedback.
You will have richer, better information for when the teen is ready to change.
Taking the time to use validation techniques gives you the chance to set aside preconceived notions.