By Casey O'Roarty


Tips for validating teens

One powerful way to be in relationship with the people in our lives is validation. In Positive Discipline, we call this Validating Feelings.  The Validate Feelings tool card from Positive Discipline has four pieces: 

  1. Allow children to have their feelings so they can learn they are capable of dealing with them.
  2. Don’t fix, rescue, or try to talk children out of their feelings. 
  3. Validate their feelings: “I can see you are really (angry, upset, sad).” 
  4. Then keep your mouth shut and have faith in your children to work it through.  

I like to think of validation as a way to be human to human with my kids.  I want them to have the experience of feeling seen.  When we validate, it’s an opportunity to  let our teens know we can handle them being in their emotions and that we have faith in them to navigate that.  Validation improves relationships, deescalates conflict and intense emotions, shows we’re listening without judgment, and that we care.  I also think of validation as the opening of a door: when our kids and teens feel seen and not judged, they’re so much more likely to move into a receptive, problem-solving state.  Maybe not immediately, but they’re more likely to get there.  

Photo by Sébastien Mouilleau on Unsplash

What hangs us up sometimes is feeling like validating our teens is the same thing as agreeing with their actions or behavior.  That’s not true; we can validate thoughts and feelings without agreeing with what they’ve done or where they’re finding themselves.  “Yeah, it sucks to get really behind in school.  It can feel really overwhelming.”  Validating that experience isn’t the same as “It’s okay you haven’t done any homework over the last two weeks.  I’m okay with that.”  It’s about seeing our teens where they’re at and creating a space for them to feel seen there. 

So how do we do it?  I learned so much when I went through DBT with my daughter in 2020, which I’ve shared about on the Joyful Courage podcast.  Here’s some of what I learned about validating through DBT: 

Active listening

One way we can validate is through active listening.  Make eye-contact and focus on what the other person is saying.  This is listening to understand, not listening while you’re thinking about what you’ll say next or how you’ll fix it.   You’re listening to find out new information. 

Verbal and nonverbal reactions

Be mindful about verbal and nonverbal reactions.  How do you hold your body?  What are your facial expressions?  We have so many tells, and our kids know them.  Our tone of voice tells them what we think.  We have to work hard to find and embody neutral and wanting to be curious and present with them.  As soon as we start fixing their problems, they can see it, and that’s not useful or validating.  

What are they feeling right now?

Observe what your teen is feeling in the moment.  Listen for the word or phrase that gives you a hint or a clue about what they’re feeling.  

Hold back the judgment

Reflect back what they’re saying without judgment.  “You’re feeling really frustrated.  You’re totally over history class.”  You want them to feel heard.  

Validate in your response

Respond in a way that shows you’re taking them seriously.  “That sounds awful.  What do you need right now?”  Connect with them where they are at.  

The biggest part of validation is just being with the person.  

As adults, we have more experience than our kids do, and sometimes it feels like the solution is so obvious. We have wisdom, thoughts, and opinions that could be useful, but now is a time to just zip it.  We just need to be with them.   

As parents, we have a really low tolerance for seeing our kids struggle.  We have to grow and flex this muscle.  You don’t need to solve their problems or have the perfect thing to say.  I love the metaphor about a brand-new butterfly that’s just wiggled out of its chrysalis.  When we get in there and pull the chrysalis apart, the butterfly isn’t able to build the strength it needs in their wings, and it can never fly.  This is our teens!  When we get in the middle of the struggle and make it easier for our kids, they don’t build those muscles and they never fly.  They have to build their muscles.  The only way they can do that is with space and belief in themselves that they can do it.  That belief comes from us validating their experiences and our trust that they will figure it out. 

Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, says; “We help children understand their feelings and deal with them effectively by taking them seriously and then helping them work it out or trusting them to work things out after they feel validated and have a little time.  It’s amazing how often children do work out solutions to their problems when they’re simply allowed to do so in a friendly atmosphere of support and validation.”  This is how they grow those wings. 

Validation isn’t our only tool. We don’t have to be validation machines. It’s not a strategy or a trick; it’s about being with another human and them feeling you there. There’s no agenda. 

So, what about when you do have an idea or an opinion you want to give to your teen? Once they feel seen and heard, they’re more likely to open to hearing it. That being said, I’d encourage you to get in the habit of asking if they’d like to hear your wisdom. Prepare yourself for hearing no! Let them know you’re available when you need support and that you love them.  That’s it. They’ll come to you when they want support, especially when you give them space and trust.  

We all know what it’s like to feel invalidated. It sucks when a friend tells us all about what we should have done or why we shouldn’t be feeling this way. Nobody likes that, and it doesn’t help us feel better or do better.  

A lot of teens are feeling pain and disconnected right now. 

Can we acknowledge the world is shitty right now?!  The future doesn’t necessarily look very bright.  They’re on social media, they see the news, and they’re trying to make sense of it all.  There’s some deep discouragement right now.  Their feelings are real and valid.  Meet them there, see them, hear them, and drop the assumption you know how they feel.  Listen to them with an open heart.  

Not talking?

But what if your teen doesn’t tell you all that much?  Keep this one in your back pocket: “Tell me more about that.”  When you don’t know what to say, just say “tell me more.”  This will help you understand more about what they’re going through.   

If you’re not sure what your teen needs, ask! I was talking to my daughter Rowan on the phone yesterday, and she was really struggling.  I wasn’t quite sure what it was that she actually needed from me, so I just asked.  “Babe, do you want me to listen and validate your experience or share what I think you should do?”  I asked her what would be useful, she told me what she needed, and I was able to offer that.  

Know that your teen is going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. Everybody is going to be okay, even the teens that are really struggling right now. Lean into this idea of validating their experience and how they’re feeling.  Practice seeing them and their experience.  

Listen to this episode on the Joyful Courage podcast.

Author bio

Casey O’Roarty, M.Ed, is a facilitator of personal growth and development. For the last 15 years, her work has encouraged parents to discover the purpose of their journey, and provided them with tools and a shift of mindset that has allowed them to deepen their relationship with themselves and their families. Casey is a Positive Discipline Lead Trainer and Coach. She hosts the Joyful Courage podcast, parenting summits, live and online classes, and individual coaching. Her book, Joyful Courage: Calming the Drama and Taking Control of YOUR Parenting Journey was published in May 2019. Casey lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, and two teenagers.


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