- Invalidation involves discounting, delegitimizing, or communicating that someone's thoughts, feelings, or actions are an overreaction.
- Regular parental invalidation can have lasting consequences, with frequently invalidated teens having higher levels of emotional dysregulation.
- Parents can confuse validation with agreement, yet they are different. Validation conveys an understanding of the person's internal experience.
According to Rathus and Miller (2015), invalidation means “to disconfirm, to discount, to delegitimize, to communicate that what the other person is thinking, feeling, or doing does not make sense, is inaccurate or an overreaction.” The invalidated person is often left feeling ashamed, frustrated, confused, and “wrong.”
The scientific research on invalidation is alarming. The effects of recurrent and regular parental invalidation can have lifelong consequences for children. Rathus and Miller state the frequently invalidated can stop trusting their emotions, begin to self-invalidate, and scan the environment for clues about the “correct” way to feel.
An NIH study also found that parents who often invalidated their adolescent’s emotional expressions reared adolescents who demonstrated higher levels of emotion dysregulation and internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Sadly, a 2019 study also found that parental invalidation could predict adolescent non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).
The psychological community would argue that the “invalidator” is engaging in emotionally abusive behavior. There’s no argument there, but is it always intentional? I belong to the school of thought that believes many parents do not intentionally insult and or “gaslight” their children. In most cases, they are simply repeating what was said to them in childhood and are fearful that acknowledging their child’s big emotion could potentially reinforce unwanted behaviors or make them more upset in the moment. None of which is true—quite the opposite. Validation is often used as a de-escalation technique.
Validation Is Not Agreement
Parents can confuse validation with agreement with their child’s feelings and behaviors. “If I validate their anger, then I’m saying it’s okay that they broke their siblings’ toy.” It’s easy to see how one could come to that conclusion, yet there is a difference between the two. Validation communicates an understanding of the person's internal experience. For example, “I can see how frustrating that must have been for you” is very different from “It’s okay to break things when you’re angry.” Simply put, validation is a non-judgmental acknowledgment of the person's thoughts, feelings, values, and behaviors.
It’s important to remember that we are all “guilty” of invalidating friends or loved one’s feelings at one point or another. Yet, when you know better, you have the responsibility to do better. It’s also important to realize that we have the opportunity to break the transgenerational transmission of maladaptive communication in our families by using validation. The goal is not to never invalidate another’s emotional experience again; no one is perfect. Instead, the goal is to humble and educate ourselves, acknowledge how we invalidate the people we love, and incorporate more validating statements than invalidating—one situation at a time.
Examples of Invalidating Statements to Avoid
1. “You have no reason to be upset. No one else feels that way.” This is a classic example of telling someone how they “should” feel. Ask yourself, where is it written that one “should” feel or “should” think a certain way? “No one else feels that way” can also leave a child feeling isolated, defective, and humiliated.
2. “That’s not what happened…” I’m not a fan of using buzzwords, but it’s called for here. Intentional or not, this is a prime example of “gaslighting.” A term used to describe psychological manipulation aimed at having someone question their recollection of events, perspective, and reality. Everyone has their truth and their viewpoint of events that transpired.
3. “How do you think that makes me feel?” Patience is called for here. Remember, this is a dialogue, not a monologue. There will be a time during the conversation to talk about your feelings and your emotional experience. After you’ve validated the other, you can gently ask if they are willing and ready to hear about your feelings, your experience. Remember, the goal is conflict resolution, not conflict escalation.
4. “You’re so dramatic.” Making statements about another’s character is the quickest way to make them defensive, and when we’re feeling defensive, we stop listening altogether. We’re too busy preparing to defend and create a counterargument to actively listen. Not only does this prolong the resolution, but it also makes the child less willing to disclose their true feelings to you in the future for fear of being judged. Labeling is the foundation for an adversarial relationship.
5. “Well, life’s not fair…” Making sweeping statements about “life” is one sure-fire way to create deep-seated negative core beliefs in children that can take a lifetime to dislodge. These deep-seated beliefs also often color the lens through which we see life. That may be your experience and truth, but ask yourself, how does this statement make my child feel supported? How does this help to de-escalate the situation? This is the equivalent of saying, “Suck it up!” or “Get over it!” It’s an unhelpful statement and sends the message “you should get used to injustice,” which no child can feel or comprehend.
6. “Why can’t you be more like your sister/brother?” As the old saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy.” I’ll add, comparing yourself to other people is like riding the express lane to shame and depression. In the language of a child, this could easily be interpreted as “I’m not good enough,” or “Something is wrong with me,” or “I’m not normal.”
7. “Stop crying! There’s no reason to cry.” This is more about us than it is about them. I equate the statement to yelling, “You’re scaring me!” Watching our loved ones cry can make us feel deeply uncomfortable. I believe that very discomfort comes from a sense of helplessness and powerlessness which can be a terrifying emotion for parents to experience. Let them cry; they’ll recover. There’s evidence that suggests the benefits of crying include mood improvement, the dulling of pain, restoration of emotional balance, and detoxification of the body. They’re entitled to express their emotions. Offer tissues and ask if they’d like a hug or a moment to be alone. Some children can experience a deep sense of vulnerability and embarrassment while crying in front of others. Wait until the tears have subsided to ask more questions about how they’re feeling and about the source of their tears.
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Rathus, J. H., & Miller, A. L. (2015). DBT®skills manual for adolescents. Guilford Press.