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Building a Bridge to Your Child Through Validation

a mom talks with a teen on a tablet after reading about connecting with your child

If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the shortest distance between a parent and child is validation. At its root, validation isn’t about agreeing with what your child is saying or doing; it’s about finding something within yourself that taps into the same thing they’re feeling. Connecting with your child can often be as simple as acknowledging that their feelings are real and valid. 

You can find help and support for your relationship with your child at Family First’s adolescent rehab program. We help teen boys 13-18 struggling with their mental health. Our program helps rebuild family connections while managing challenging mental health symptoms. Call 888.904.5947 to get started.  

Challenging Behaviors Cause Disconnect 

Teens struggling with difficult emotions often don’t know how to express them. When teens are hurt—when they suffer from shame, self-hatred, or self-judgment and feel helpless and hopeless—they act out and act in.  

Acting Out 

Angrily lashing out isn’t the only way teens express themselves outwardly. They might also:  

  • Engage in risky behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use 
  • Engage in self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning 
  • Refuse to follow rules and authority figures 
  • Break laws and get into trouble with the law  

These actions are often seen as “bad” or “rebellious,” but they’re actually just misguided attempts at coping with difficult emotions. 

Acting In 

Sometimes, teens don’t act out but act in. These behaviors are often self-punishing and can include: 

  • Isolating themselves from others 
  • Withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed 
  • Engaging in negative self-talk 
  • Showing signs of depression or anxiety  
  • Seek shelter through problematic gaming or screen addiction 

These behaviors are often seen as “shutting down” or being “distant,” but they actually signal that the teen is struggling internally and needs help. Teens struggling with their mental health might act out and act in simultaneously. 

Emotionally Connecting with Your Child Starts with Communication 

By opening compassionate lines of communication with your teen, you allow for emotional connection to occur. The key is to listen without judgment and validate their feelings. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say or do but simply acknowledging that their emotions are valid and real. 

Here are some tips for communication: 

  • Set aside time each day to talk with your teen 
  • Listen actively by giving them your full attention 
  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to share more 
  • Avoid interrupting or lecturing 
  • Show empathy and support, even if you don’t understand their perspective  

Remember, teens struggling with underlying mental or behavioral health issues might not voluntarily open up to you—especially if they’ve been punished for acting out. Be gentle with your teen and demonstrate your willingness to listen with an open mind.  

When a teen feels seen, heard, accepted, and not alone, it’s easier for them to understand and move past what happened or what they did and focus instead on their underlying thoughts and feelings. This is where growth, learning, and healing happen. 

Validating Your Child Is Not About Problem-Solving 

Think of your child’s problematic behavior as a symptom of something much greater. If you react only to their acting out—the symptom—the underlying emotional pain remains unaddressed. Discipline, consequences, or other negative attention can actually reinforce their shame and self-hatred—leading to even more problematic behaviors. 

As a parent, it hurts to know your child is suffering and in pain, and it’s a natural impulse to coax them to open up to you and go directly into problem-solving mode. The overwhelming instinct to problem solve comes naturally—and it can unintentionally invalidate your child and reinforce the dynamics of shame, self-criticism, and dependency that are keeping them stuck. 

Rather than problem-solving, which displays sympathy to your teen, try showing empathy. Empathy ditches the problem-solving mindset and helps with connecting with your child. These connections help remind them that they are not alone and that they can come to you when they hurt, when they’re happy, or any other time—because their feelings are valid.1 

Leave Your Judgment at the Door 

When your child is in an emotional crisis, your most important first step is to take stock of your own thoughts and feelings about what’s happening and separate these from what your child is going through. 

In doing this, you can be mindful of your own bias so you don’t perceive your teenager’s words and actions through your own adult filter. Feeling triggered, tired, frustrated, or otherwise overwhelmed by your own complex emotions can make connecting with your child and validating their feelings even more challenging. Validation nurtures your teen’s mental health, helping them feel safe, worthy, and important, which are crucial for their self-esteem and identity building. 

Four Key Steps to Validating Communication 

  1. Take Note 

Try to understand what’s happening inside your teen and how they’re making sense of their experience rather than focusing on their behavior. Children unconsciously organize their lives around protecting themselves from what they fear, and we often lash out at things we fear. If they’re acting out at school, it may be because there’s something they’re afraid of at school. They may be lashing out because he’s being bullied, pressured, judged, or victimized in some way. 

  1. Look Within 

Examine what’s going on with you while you’re sitting with your child—are you feeling triggered, frustrated, tired, sad, worried, anxious, or annoyed? Being aware of your own emotions can help you slow down and observe rather than rush to react. 

  1. Explore with Openness 

Try to investigate how they’re feeling in a non-threatening way by repeating what they’ve said and asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions. When they tell you what happened, repeat it back to them to make sure you heard it right, and give them the chance to correct you if you got it wrong. 

  1. Be Present 

When the time comes to respond, there’s only one phrase that matters: “It must be really difficult that this is happening.” You’ll likely find your own similar words for this, but it’s a vital bridge. When spoken from the heart, it can immediately diffuse even the biggest emotions because it gives your child permission to feel vulnerable and lets them know that you understand they’re struggling. 

Communication, Validation, Connection 

This is what validation accomplishes. When parents only focus on their child’s behavior, the child believes their parents don’t care how they feel. On the flip side, when a parent acknowledges their teen’s feelings and struggle, the teen feels that they’re no longer alone and that they have the support of someone they value. 

There’s no manual for being a parent. You learn how to be a parent in two ways: first, you learn from your own parents—for many, this is a challenge of its own. Second, you learn how to be a parent through whatever work you have done on yourself in a therapeutic and personal growth environment.  

Connecting with your child can be difficult, but it’s crucial for their mental health and well-being.  

Call Family First to Get Help Communicating 

The families that come to Family First Adolescent Services have our support from the very first phone call. We’ll provide you with the tools, compassion, and resources you need to begin your journey to healing immediately. Is Family First Adolescent Services right for you and your family? 

Call us at 888.904.5947 or complete our online form