I hope you read my last post (hint: if you didn't, go check it out now!), because it was there that I promised you I'd share my number one suggestion for parents who want their teens to open up. Are you ready? This is huge. In fact, you might want to sit down. Here it is:
Are you surprised? Disappointed? If you're rolling your eyes, you aren't alone. Most parents look at me like I've grown a second head when I start talking about validating their teens. "You want me to do what?" And then, "But isn't that like AGREEING with him?!"
Allow me to explain. Validation in its most basic form is acknowledging how someone feels. For example, your daughter is sobbing after finding out her friends made plans without her and you say, "You seem really hurt right now." This may seem like something straight from Mr. Obvious but let's stick with the basics for now. Validation actually has several levels, but you don't need to get all fancy-pants for this to work. The thing is, something very interesting happens when you make a statement like this -- you get a response, and a response is the direct opposite of the shut-down, withdrawn presentation most parents get from their teens on the daily. This response is your reward for simply indicating that you noticed what's happening for the other person. To keep this interaction going you're going to have to be focused and continue making validating statements. Noticing and reporting what you see will only go so far, so take your validation to the next level by normalizing what your teen is experiencing. To continue the example I gave above, normalizing would sound like, "I feel the same way when I'm not included," or "I'm sure anyone would feel upset in that situation." This is the part where I usually get some feedback about this feeling like agreement when a parent doesn't necessarily want to express agreement with the teen's behaviour or position. It is important to remember that normalizing is not the same as agreeing. Example: Teen punches a hole in the wall at school after a teacher calls him out in front of a group of respected peers. A parent can validate ("I know I would feel embarrassed and angry if that happened to me.") without agreeing ("How else could you have handled that situation?"). When we validate by acknowledging and normalizing someone's feelings, we communicate that we understand them. When you're able to make your teen feel understood, you also make them feel safe about opening up further and position yourself as someone who can be trusted to listen. This is a very good position to be in when you want to talk about alternatives to punching holes in walls, for example.
To summarize: If we receive validation, we feel understood. When we feel understood, we feel safe enough to get vulnerable. Vulnerability = "opening up". Notice + Normalize = Validation.
I make no claims that this will be easy. Most of us adults haven't received sufficient validation to be skilled at offering it, but it can be learned and it does get easier (and feel more natural) with practice. Need some help? Let me know!
Blog Author -- Jodie Voth, MMFT
Jodie is a full-time therapist and owner of Voth Family Therapy. She enjoys working with teens and motivated adults who are working through transitions and relationship challenges.