This may be the most important “solution” to common problems that we have to offer. I find that many major arguments and hurt feelings can be traced back to a failure to follow these steps (hence the label “Step #0”). If you’re not in the habit of doing this, you’ll have a harder time connecting with your child. Unfortunately, if this type of response was not modeled for you in your childhood, it may not “seem right” or come naturally. It took me years of practice to fully abandon my bad habits in this area, but it was well worth it!
Imagine you’re driving to meet a friend for lunch when you notice you’re low on gas. You go in to pay, but you have to stand in line for what feels like forever, and you end up being late to your engagement. When you arrive, you quickly say “OMG, this person in front of me spent 15 minutes rummaging through her purse for pennies! At one point I let out a little sigh of frustration and she turned around and cursed at me! I couldn’t believe it!”
Now imagine your friend says “Well. You didn’t have to wait, you know, you could have gone to another gas station”.
How would you feel?
Let’s look at some other potential responses:
Maybe your friend gives some advice like:
“You should have filed a complaint”
“You should have asked them to move aside while you go”
Or lectures you like:
“Hey be sensitive! That person might have a disability”
“They probably felt terrible having you sighing behind them, did you think about their feelings?
Or what if they tried to “make it better”:
“Oh you poor thing, can I get you something to make it better?”
“My uncle works at the same company, I could have him talk to somebody…”
Or asked you why you’re feeling the way you are :
“Why are you frustrated by something like that?”
Or if they were dismissive:
“It’s not THAT big a deal. You’re over-reacting”
Or questioned the story:
“Are you sure they were digging for pennies and not something else?”
“Was it really 15 minutes, or are you just exaggerrating?“
“When you sighed, were you really being loud and intrusive?”
Now imagine that instead of those responses. your friend listened closely to the story and then said, with genuine emotion:
“Ugh! How frustrating!”
Which would you prefer to hear? Which responses would cause you to feel irked, or defensive? Perhaps you’re having trouble even imagining a friend speaking to you in any way but the last!
Now I’m not saying there’s just one right way to respond to every problem, but I do know that the last example, which is the simplest, works. It works because when we tell the story of the long wait at the gas station, we aren’t seeking advice or consolation or help in analyzing the problem. Most likely, in those scenarios, we are just seeking some connection and empathy. The problem is over, there’s nothing to “fix”, but we’re also still slightly bothered by it. When we hear “Ugh! How frustrating”, we experience a validation of our emotions. We’re relieved just to “get it off our chest”, and feel like our friend “gets us”. The friend is showing that they are listening, they understand and can relate, and that’s it.
For some reason, plenty of people who would choose the ‘simple’ response when dealing with other adults, feel compelled to talk to their kids much differently. Perhaps it’s with the best intentions that they want to help the child solve the problem. Or maybe they’re exhausted from listening to a child that never seems to stop sharing, and so they blurt out a response that they hope will shut them up. But the way it lands in the listener, as seen in the examples above, is usually as disrespectful. The attitude conveyed is “Don’t bother me with that” or, “I know better than you (even though I wasn’t there)”. It might work to get your kid to shut up, if that’s your goal, but you’ll be stoking contempt and disrespect that you’ll certainly pay for later!
So the exact steps for Listening and Validating with children are:
1) Listen! Listening is the most important part, and perhaps the hardest to teach. If the child comes running to you upset, turn off the TV! You can show you’re listening by getting down to the child’s level, by kneeling, and making eye contact. Kids notice when you’re not paying attention. If you’re having trouble with this step, just think back to your own childhood. Remember the adults who actually listened to you and how that made you feel? It’s one of the most important gifts you can give a child. And in my experience, it causes a relaxation in the listener that keeps them from feeling the need to repeat or over-share.
2) Leave the dialogue open. During their story, let them get it all out. Don’t interrupt. You can keep a story going with simple one word responses like “Uh huh… OK… I see… Hmmm”. They just need someone to listen. Don’t correct them, lecture, or ask tons of questions. It might feel weird at first, but giving kids (or anyone) room to lay out the story and their feelings about it will help them process those feelings themselves. We want to raise children who feel confident and capable in expressing and processing their emotions without over-reliance on others.
3) Help the child name the feeling. Simply saying “Sounds like you’re frustrated” or if they’re jumping up and down in excitement about something: “Wow, you’re excited!” They have strong feelings, sometimes over-flowing, but they often don’t have the language to describe those feelings. Continue giving them the language, and they’ll learn to use those words to express themselves, NOT by screaming and crying. Soon you’ll be hearing “Oh, I’m so frustrated” instead of “AAAHHGHGHGHG!”