How We Invalidate Children’s Feelings Without Realizing It

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Have you ever been really frustrated and been told to “just get over it?” Did that statement to “suck it up” really help you move past your frustration or just infuriate you even more? What about when you said you felt a particular way and someone pitied you, ignored you, refuted your feelings, or peppered you with questions, what was that like? Refusing to have your emotions acknowledged probably made you feel frustrated and hurt, but ask yourself how often do we invalidate the feelings of the children in our lives?

Here are a few examples of parent/teacher conversations with children:

Kid: “I’m hungry.”
Parent: “No you’re not. You just ate.”

Kid: “I’m hot.”
Teacher: “No way, it’s freezing.”

Kid: “I don’t know how to do this.”
Teacher: “Yes you do, I just went over it.”

Kid: “My ear hurts.”
Teacher: “Ok. What do you want me to do about it?”

Kid: “I hate my teacher.”
Parent: “No you don’t, you love her.”

Kid: “I didn’t do anything. Why do I have to move to the back of the line.”
Teacher: “Because I said so.”

We are all guilty of being in a rush and not responding empathetically to others. However, when we take the time to acknowledge how the other person is feeling, we have a chance to connect and give space for self-reflection and personal growth. Instead of rushing to dismiss how your student or child is feeling, slow down just acknowledge their feeling. This is how most counselors know to respond, but few parents and teachers understand that this is the power of our practice.

You don’t want just to parrot back to the person the exact phrasing that they use, you want to intuit how they are feeling. I would also advise against owning the feeling. Instead of saying, “I see that you’re angry” you’d say, “You seem angry.” When I say, “I” in front of a statement, it makes it my experience and takes away from their experience. It’s usually pretty easy to support a child when they are expressing a happy emotion, but far more difficult when they are expressing anger or sadness, but those are equally valid emotions. Help kids name their feelings and don’t argue with them about how they are feeling. Just acknowledge how they are feeling and watch their experience unfold.

So many people think that counseling is talking and advice giving, but that is rarely the case. Most of the time, we are just listeners. We allow others to process their experience in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Below are the examples from above but instead of dismissing the children’s experience, I provided responses that validate their experience.

Examples of validating a child’s experience:

Kid: “I’m hungry.”
Parent: “So, you’re still hungry even though you just ate.”

Kid: “I’m hot.”
Teacher: “You’re hot, even though I feel cold.”

Kid: “I don’t know how to do this.”
Teacher: “So, you still feel unsure of how to handle this problem.”

Kid: “My ear hurts.”
Teacher: “You’re in pain.”

Kid: “I hate my teacher.”
Parent: “It sounds like you’re really mad at your teacher.”

Kid: “I hate you. Why do I have to move to the back of the line?”
Teacher: “You’re really frustrated that I asked you to move to the back of the line.”

Some parents and teachers worry that they won’t reflect the child’s emotion accurately. Don’t stress about that, they’ll let you know what they are feeling. If you think they’re angry because their friend is mad at them and in fact they are sad or disappointed, they will tell you. If you realize that you’ve missed an opportunity and wish you’d handled something better, that’s okay too, you can always go back and share with them that you messed up. Our kids just want our acknowledgment and love.