Why doesn’t validating my anxious child work?

This was actually a much longer question and I’m going to read it in its entirety here (with some personal information deleted).

“I’ve been following your instagram and listening to your podcast for sometime. You tell people to validate their child’s feelings but this does not work. It doesn’t calm down my child or make her less anxious so why are you recommending it?”

Listener, thank you for following me and thank you for coming to me directly with this question and giving me permission to answer it here as well as through our email exchange. 

I usually think about this podcast during my run and I was thinking about this one after my long run last Sunday when I was walking up this absolutely gargantuan hill. I dread this hill every time I run that route because it’s a monster and I’m already tired since Sunday is my longer run day. 

I was very whiny in my head because I was also thirsty and my icy cold water bottle was at the tippy top of the hill sitting in my car just waiting for me. It got me to thinking about going on long walks with thirsty kids. And it also got me to thinking about being a thirsty kid, which made me think about validating.

Validation is magic. It really is. And sometimes it does work if we’re defining work as helping a child calm down and move on from whatever is bothering them. It works with kids and it works with adults because validating says, “I hear you. I am with you. And I believe you.”

As parents we tend to want to problem solve or teach, to pass on an important lesson. Our child is struggling and we point out the ways that their struggle is due to their choices or the ways it’s inevitable — like, yup, welcome to reality. I know I am often guilty of this with my own kids. There is something just kind of pulls us toward turning everything into a learning opportunity. I mean, that’s what parents are for, right? Raising kids which means teaching and guiding.

So it’s good to validate. It’s good to stop in the moment and just say, “I hear you. I am with you. I believe you.”

Back to that hill. If you have ever gone on a walk with a thirsty child and forgotten your water bottle then you are familiar with whining. 

Children whine out loud for several reasons.

1. It works. Whining works. It gets our attention, we usually want it to stop so will look for ways to make it stop.

2. The younger the child is the more they see us as an extension of themselves and so whining is part of processing. Children process out loud. They process to their parents because it’s part of processing to themselves. 

3. And finally again, the younger the child is the more powerful they think we are. If they are thirsty and they tell us that they are thirsty, they expect us to give them something to drink. When we don’t — perhaps because we are at the bottom of the hill and the water bottle is at the top — they think we’re holding out on them. Or that we don’t believe that they are thirsty.

This is what I was remembering on my own slog up the hill earlier this week. I was thinking about being a child and being thirsty and feeling like my mom must not get how thirsty I was or else she would be giving me water. So I kept trying to explain.

I also remember when I was a preschool teacher and I used to babysit for some of the kids in the class. And I remember taking care of twins and putting them to bed. One was wearing a purple nightgown and the other wanted her purple nightgown but it had chocolate milk spilled all down the front so she was whining and I was explaining, logically as you do, and she then laid herself down on the stairs and just wailed and I was standing there flabbergasted, like what did she expect me to do? I said to her, “I am not magic, I cannot make your purple nightgown clean” and as I was saying it, pretty frustrated, I realized that yes, she thinks I’m magic because she is three and she is so unhappy about the nightgown and she thinks I’m holding out on her. She thinks I do have the power to make instantaneous clean nightgowns or the power to lift her sadness and frustration.

That is being three.

That goes on for a long time. Heck, as an adult there are times when I think, “This is just not possible.” You know, the car breaks down, the check bounces, it all happens on a particularly terrible day and we think, “C’mon, how am I supposed to tolerate this?” And we’re grown people who have a sense of time, who have been through good times and bad. 

Now consider being a kid. And time seems to stretch on forever. Remember how long summer vacation used to be? And how short it is now as a parent? Now think about slogging up that hill.

In other words validation is not magic. Validation will not make the whining stop, it will not make the anxiety stop. Validation is a tool that says, “You are not alone.”

So much of parenting is about repetition, which is why the experts are always talking about consistency. The more often we response in the same way to the same circumstances, the easier it is for our child to understand how the world works. Now that doesn’t mean you need to be a robot. We’re all going to be inconsistent sometimes. But if we are generally predictable our children learn that they can more or less, kind of sort of predict the world.

They will whine their way up hills both literal and metaphorical but eventually they will learn that hills end. There is water at the top. It will take a lot of whining to get there. 

This is all to say that when we talk about certain parenting choices “working” — remember the original question was about how validating doesn’t “work” — we need to redefine working.

No it doesn’t work if your main goal is to get your child to stop whining or stop being anxious.

No it doesn’t work if you’re hoping to cure your child’s Anxiety.

Validating works as part of big picture parenting. It works in helping your child learn that they are not alone. That you do understand them. 

If we believe that validation should work, then we may over validate. We may join our child in their suffering, which perpetuates their suffering. If we sat down and wailed with them about the lack of water on the way up the hill, we’d never get to the top of the hill.

You’re not failing your child when you can’t fix things immediately. They may think you are – I’m pretty sure that twin felt betrayed by me in holding out that purple nightgown she obviously thought I could magically produce at will. And feeling their sense of failure is painful for us. It hurts — it can make us angry or weirdly feel guilty. Maybe guilty because we forgot to wash the nightgown or pack the water bottle or guilty because the whining catapults us into anger. So I encourage your to step back. 

Parenting is a long game. It’s lots of busy work and boring tasks and a daily grind that all leads up to helping grow a full fledged person. We get lots of chances to get it right, lots of room for course correction.

The other thing I was thinking as I dragged myself up the hill, which as you can tell from the long convoluted thinking I did, was a very long hill. Or maybe I’m just slow but likely a little bit of both. Is that this impatience with wanting to find a tool, wanting to find a fix is an awful lot like your child’s demand for water when there is no water yet.

This yearning to help our kids and to make things better immediately is a reminder of how they’re feeling. We’re echoing their experience.

They want water and we want to give it to them. And we both need to tolerate how uncomfortable it is to have to wait.

By the way, I want you to know that the very sad twin lying on the staircase and wailing is now an MD. I found this out when one of my clients mentioned her doctor and I recognized the twins name. I said, “next time you see her, tell her your therapist used to change her diapers.

Ok, have a great week. 

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