Validating Feelings

The jammies are on. The teeth are brushed. A chapter in the book has been read. I turn out the light and ask my daughter our nightly question, "Is there anything about your day you want to tell me about?" If I ask my daughter, Molly, to tell me her feelings during the day, I get short answers. There's so many more interesting things to do than talk to dad about embarrassing stuff like feelings. But when the only alternative is falling asleep, I find Molly is more willing to open up. In fact, tonight she has a lot to say.

"Dad... Elaine and Beth aren't the same. They're just interested in boys and stuff. And they don't want to play with me anymore. So I have to play with Daisy and she is practically a toddler and it's no fun."

We are at a family gathering. At eight years old, Molly finds herself without a peer among her cousins. Elaine and Beth are teenagers. Molly had great fun with them last year and I had assumed everything was going fine this year too. But now Molly is starting to cry.

"They treat me like I'm a little kid. Like I can't do stuff, like swim with them, because I'm not responsible enough. They don't see that I am responsible! I don't need to stay with the parents all the time!"

I put my hand on Molly's back as she cries. It is such a blessing to have Molly open her feelings to me. I'm glad she feels safe enough to release her pain through her tears. I'm grateful for the chance to help her. But what do I say?

Is it a time for advice? Do I suggest, "Molly, why don't you tell Elaine and Beth that you feel old enough to play with them. And if they still don't want to play, maybe you and Daisy can find something to do that would really interest you."

Do I explain the situation as I see it? Do I say, "Molly, Elaine and Beth probably feel the same way about playing with you as you do about playing with Daisy. You can't expect them to want to include you all the time. You just have to make the best of a difficult situation."

I imagine both options would frustrate Molly further. She doesn't need advice, and she doesn't want me to empathize with Elaine and Beth's feelings. She needs help articulating her own feelings and she needs to know that I understand. If Molly has that support, she will be able to figure out what to do.

This type of response is called "validating feelings". It has two parts. First I reflect back the feelings Molly has described or implied. This lets her know I am listening and caring about how she feels.

I try it out with Molly by saying, "So you have been feeling left out by Elaine and Beth, and stuck playing with Daisy which isn't very fun for you. And you want more respect for how responsible you can be, rather than being seen as a 'little kid'. Is that right?"

Molly whimpers her assent.

The second part of validating feelings is less well understood. People need more than just to know that their feelings have been heard. If reflection is all we needed we could probably just talk to a tape recorder and then play it back. There is a deeper need that as a listener I am called to fill.

The deeper need is to get help understanding that our feeling make sense. To validate someone's feelings fully is to let them know that you can see why they feel the way they do. That is what helps someone really feel understood.

I tell Molly, "I can see how it would feel bad to get left out by Elaine and Beth, especially after you had so much fun with them last year. And it must be really frustrating to not get the respect you know you deserve. I can also see how playing with Daisy all day could get boring. All that can easily add up to feeling pretty crummy."

"Will you sing me a lullaby?" Molly asks. She seems ready to drift off to sleep. I didn't solve her problem for her. But perhaps she now feels content to simply have her feelings, and to let them pass.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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