Sunday, December 13, 2009


Why is validation so hard?

Corey was screaming in the main hall. It was hard to even understand why he was so upset, but it seemed to have something to do with not being allowed to call his mentor, Bob. Laura, a unit staff, was with him and was speaking in a calm and soothing voice. But what was she saying? "Corey you have already left him 13 messages and you have called him many times. I’m sure he will call you when he can."

What was she not saying? "Corey it must be so upsetting when Bob doesn’t call. I know you are very worried because you haven’t heard from him in a while. I know it is hard for you."
We do understand how painful and scary it is for Corey when his only human contact outside this agency seems to have disappeared. It’s even frustrating for us when someone doesn’t respond to our calls, and we have much less at stake than Corey does.

Yet what makes it hard for us to make validating statements to kids? Why do we move so quickly to rational explaining and giving advice?

1. Laura knows that Corey may be driving Bob further away with his many frantic calls and messages. She feels desperate to preserve this relationship for Corey and wants to change his behavior before Bob gives up.

2. When we validate kids’ complaints we think we are agreeing with them and strengthening their beliefs. Suppose a kid says: "I hate all the staff. They are so unfair." If a staff responds: "right now you hate all the staff here and think they are all unfair" is that person saying that they themselves think the staff are unfair? No. They are saying that they understand how the child is feeling at this time.

3.We think that if we do not explain away the problem and offer fixes the child will feel worse... and act worse. We are frightened by that possibility.

This, I think, is the most important:

4. Giving advice, fixing the problem, feels better to us. To validate you have to feel the child’s pain. And stay with it. And the pain is so intense. We feel so helpless. We under-estimate the value and efficacy of the gift we give through listening and understanding.

So if Laura says "Corey that must be so hard" she has to stop for a moment and feel Corey’s life. What will it be like if in fact he has lost his only outside contact? What does it feel like to be thirteen years old and have no reliable adults in your life? He blames himself. He has no one. That is so sad- and we feel a strong urge to fix it or lessen the impact for him.

Yet time and time again we have seen the power of validation to soothe, to de-escalate, to strengthen relationships, and to promote healing. By validating we are lessening the impact- because we offer Corey the experience of an adult who understands, a new version of the possibilities of relationship.

And we have only to consider times we ourselves have shared a painful experience with a friend to remember what helped us. Did we want our friend to tell us this wasn’t such a big deal? Did we want her to immediately give us advice? Or did we want her to simply acknowledge how bad we were feeling and to understand?

So let’s pass a law saying you must make five validating statements before you give advice to children.

And I know a lot of wives who would like the law to also apply to their husbands.


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