Helping Kids Cope with Stress
Updated: Apr 24
I got my start as a therapist working exclusively with children. I’ve always loved being around kids and working with kids (I tutored, babysat, etc.), but never set out to be a children’s therapist. As a new grad, the first job opportunity I got just happened to be at a community mental health center that exclusively serves children and adolescents. Despite the challenges and having now branched out to other areas of therapy, I ended up being incredibly thankful for this work not just because of the therapy experience and training, but also because I learned something deeply important: that childhood is arguably the most significant phase of our lives.
Our childhood is the foundation for everything that comes after. I’ve seen how everything from abuse and neglect to even small invalidations in childhood can affect a person’s perceptions of themselves, how they fit in and relate to the world around them, and relate to others. I’ve also seen that with a great deal of healing, self-exploration, and determination, adults and children alike can mend those cracks in the foundation and go on to lead amazingly happy and full lives. But these lessons often have me thinking about how we can take good care in the first place. And if I had to sum up what I’ve learned in one word, it would be: validation. The best we (whether we’re parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, cousins, coaches, you name it) can do for our kids is learn to validate their emotions and experiences.
Validating children’s emotions means that we’re teaching kids to take their emotions seriously. Sure, the emotions might not always “fit the facts” (as we like to say in Dialectical Behavior Therapy), but the anger or sadness they’re feeling is still real. It means that we try not to laugh when kids are sad (even if the reason seems silly to us), and we don’t tell them to stuff down their anger (even if it feels uncomfortable for us). Validation means that we reflect children’s emotions and experiences back to them to let them know that they are seen, understood, and taken seriously. It shows that we respect them, and it teaches them to respect themselves and respect their emotions.
The potential risks of not taking our own emotions seriously are well-known to therapists. They include and are not limited to: various self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and anger management problems. I often say that these are all “different versions of the same thing.” Of course, each of these problems are going to have different, specialized treatment plans, and there are going to be different, complex roots for each problem. But generally, this is what can happen when our emotions do not have a healthy outlet because we don’t let them be seen or acknowledged.
So – what does it look like to practice and teach validation?
Parents will occasionally ask me for book recommendations, and one that I always go back to is “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Faber and Mazlish’s book circles around the same central theory, that the best we can do for our kids is validate their emotions and experiences. The book is rich with all sorts of lessons on listening with full attention, alternatives to punishment, promoting cooperation, independence, leaving space (with a simple “I see” or intentional silence) for kids to describe their experience and acknowledge their emotions, or helping kids to name and describe those emotions and experiences.
Specifically, regarding naming emotions and experiences, let’s lay out the following example: say you’re at the store with your kid, and he begins to throw a huge, wailing, body-on-the-floor meltdown because you said you’re not going to buy the toy he wants. A parent might say: “this is totally unreasonable and inappropriate, and there’s nothing to validate here because the response is disproportionate and doesn’t make sense.” Sure, you can’t validate being on the floor because he’s not getting a toy, but the emotional experience is very real and very much worth validating. Validating the emotions and experience might sound like this:
“I can really see how disappointed you are by not getting that toy.”
“I can tell that you’re really angry.”
“I know that you’re really sad right now.”
“I know that it feels really frustrating to not get what you want.”
Think about how you feel when someone tells you to “calm down,” tells you to “get over it,” says “everyone goes through that” or offers advice before acknowledging your emotions and your personal experience (or just skipping that part all together). It likely makes you want to dig your heels in further, or fuels the anger and frustration. Kids are the same way. Kids are people too, just smaller, and they want the same things we want, which is to know that they’re seen and understood, and to know they’ll be treated with respect. Try making even little adjustments to how you interact with the kids in your life, and practice validating your kid’s emotions and experiences. You will likely notice that these small efforts lead to better communication, and make riding the waves of emotions a bit easier.