JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

To Calm Big Feelings, Validate Them

feels

It was a Sunday afternoon when my then 5-year-old son first asked to go out into the front yard to have a go at his new tee-ball set. I imagine, as he drew the bat back and blasted away, he expected a pretty spectacular hit. If not exactly the kind of dinger that is only possible with the help of metabolic steroids, then at least something better than the unimpressive, well, flop that the little plastic ball did just a few feet from the tee. My son howled in anger and disappointment. In a nanosecond, my brain had produced a few possible responses: I could tell him that his body hadn't been lined up right, that his grip was off, and, in short, that he should cool it, it wasn't a big deal — we could just try again.

Fortunately, that weekend I had been at a family therapy training, and that very day my teacher reminded us that parents should always "validate before you educate." In seconds, I shifted from wanting to fix or control his reaction to just seeing my son was angry and disappointed. Of course he was! Who isn't frustrated when they want to do something and it doesn't go right? So I said, "You're mad! You wanted the ball to go far, and it didn't, and you're really frustrated! That makes sense. I'd be frustrated, too!" He looked at me as my words slowly percolated down. In about ten seconds, the wave of emotion had passed and he was ready to come back to the ball and bat, ready for my basic pointers about his at-bat form. He got the basics of baseball that day, but I was the one that learned the lesson.

This memory comes back to me often when I talk to my clients about the importance of validating emotions — for themselves, for their partners, for their children. Not because I've since been perfect in my validation as a partner and parent — sadly, my validation batting average is…not exactly 1.000. No, this is the memory that epitomizes how magical validation is, how deeply important and, well, efficient it is. A new study out of Ohio State University affirms what my family therapy teacher was saying that day: invalidating feelings makes them worse and makes it harder to feel better. In the study, only participants who were validated reported their mood went back to normal after recalling an event that made them angry. Invalidated participants found that their moods continued to decline.

Many of us are uncomfortable with core feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and even joy — often because our caregivers were similarly uncomfortable with them or because someone's out of control anger, fear, or sadness created a dangerous climate for us in the past. So, naturally, when faced with our partner's anger or our sister's sadness in the present day, we try to move away from it. Afraid it'll get bigger, grow out of control if we give it attention or imagine ourselves in their shoes. This was what fueled my (wrong) instinct to tell my son how to fix it, or try to talk him out of his angry feelings. The science is clear that if I'd done that, I would have made him angrier for longer and caused damage both to our relationship and his trust in his own feelings. I don't want that for my son or anyone I care about — and I'm sure you don't want it for your loved ones, either.

So, what is validation and what does it look like? Let's start with what it isn't. Invalidation is judging, rejecting, or ignoring another person's emotional experience. As vulnerability researcher Brene Brown says, empathic, validating statements never begin with "at least" or trying to find the silver lining. If I'd told my son "at least you hit the ball" or some version of the old classic "big kids don't cry," I would have been covertly telling my child, "your feelings are not ok." Validation is recognizing and accepting another person's emotional experience, connecting with them on a human level and undoing their aloneness. Validating statements sound like:

  • "Of course you feel like that."
  • "That makes sense."
  • "I'd feel like that, too! Anyone would in that situation."
  • "You're not crazy/wrong. That wasn't ok."
  • "I can see why you'd feel scared."
  • "That's totally normal/understandable."
  • "I've been there, too."
  • "Ugh! That's awful!"

Validation not only helps regulate emotions, it builds connection and fosters resilience. It tells people they are important, that they are accepted and cared about, that they are understood. Paradoxically, honoring their difficulty helps your loved one persevere. In my son's case, it allowed him to be open to trying again and to receiving my coaching. In contrast, invalidation fosters shame, rigidity, and toxic aloneness. So, the next time your loved one is angry, sad, or scared, try validating that it makes sense they feel bad. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it really will help them feel better faster.