We are three weeks into striving to become more peaceful parents. I look forward to hearing your reflections on how steps 1 and 2 are working for you and if you are making an effort to apply them (even occasionally) to your family. I mapped out the complete ten-step series today and discovered that I struggled to limit it to just ten points on this journey! I could keep going and going. Such beautiful ideas with so much potential for transforming our families and therefore our world. I could talk about this subject forever.
For those of you ready for a second book recommendation, I suggest you pick up a copy of Respectful Parents Respectful Kids. A wonderful book that address the needs of every member of your family (yes, including you), and touches on the parenting mission statement idea I talked about here.
Now, onto step 3!
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How was last week, parenting-wise? Did you work on identifying the need in your child's more challenging moments? Did it shift anything for you to look beyond the expression – deeper into your child – to strive to see what was really going on? If not, you can always start today. There's no need to feel like you're behind and can't jump in now. Today is always the best day to start something new.
So you've identified the need (or made an effort to anyway). Now what?
Validation is the next step after attempting to identify the need. Validation might just be my favorite parenting tool. It's one of them anyway. Because in my family validation has a magical, transformative effect.
The first time I consciously used it it (after reading this book) I got the need wrong, but much to my amazement the validation still worked. And better than I ever dreamed.
Then five, Sage had just said goodbye to a new friend who had come over to play. It was evening, and Pete was brushing Sage's hair, getting him ready for bed. (Sage was always hard to brush. He's very sensitive to pain and his long, snarly hair plus his sensitivity was a perpetual challenge. Lots of crying during brushing. For years.)
This time Sage was angrily kicking Pete in the shins while he brushed. (He rarely lashed out physically, so clearly something big was going on.) I had been reading about more peaceful and effective parenting styles and decided to try out what I was learning. Instead of our usual, "Don't kick your papa!" I looked for the need. (Sage hated to have Pete in particular brush his hair because he tends to be a little too rough with the tangles.)
I said, "It hurts to have Papa brush your hair and you are angry he isn't being more gentle." He immediately stopped kicking Pete and looked in my eyes. With a sad, teary face he said, "No. I'm sad that my friend had to go home."
Unlike most adults in an emotional crisis, my five-year old was able to go within himself, and with the help of a little validation (validation that missed the mark, but validation none-the-less) find the true need behind his behavior. He immediately stopped kicking Pete and had a hearty cry. And then he was done. That was it. I was floored.
Not bad for a first effort at connection-based peaceful parenting.
In that moment I promised myself and my children to stop parenting behavior first and instead look for and validate the need. Heck, that moment told me I didn't even have to be right for it to work. He just needed to know that I cared enough to ask. How affirming!
What Validation Provides
When you validate your child's unspoken feelings, you deliver some powerful messages that we all could benefit from hearing. You tell them that their feelings are valid. All one of them. That it is okay to be angry. Or afraid. Or sad. Or lonely. Or frustrated. Or fill-in-the-blank-here.
Because in truth, all feeling are valid. It's how we express those feelings that we're working on. And by validating our child's feeling, we validate our child. We say to them: you can be angry and I still love and respect you. What a beautiful message that is.
And when we know our feeling are okay we also get the message that we don't need to bury them or lash out instead of sharing how we really feel. We know we're understood.
Validation is free of judgement and full of empathy. Often a child acts out because they don't know how to express their feelings any other way. When we validate we provide for them a voice in the moment as well as a lesson for learning to express appropriately in the future.
And Then What?
What happens after you validate? You approve the feelings that are bottled up inside. You give your child a green-light to express what they are holding.
And it isn't always graceful.
There might be tears. Or angry voices. Or a big healing melt-down. "Oh! I'm not up for that," you say. But really, the emotions are going to come out one way or another. Providing a safe channel is one of our important jobs as a parent. In my opinion a big, long sob in loving arms (or aggressively beating the tar our of a couch cushion) is preferable to both A) a full-blown tantrum or B) learning to bottle up your feelings. Let the feelings flow. After they release those buried emotions you'll see a clarity in your child's eyes that may have been missing for a long time.
And the more you practice connection-based parenting, the fewer (and shorter) of these post-validation meltdowns you'll experience. Because there won't be a backlog of feelings waiting to come out. Your child will be clear and connected with their own emotions. And if you validate, for example, that your child feels afraid when they see a big dog it won't bring forth the expression of so many other buried fears that they've been waiting for an opportunity to express.
It's Not Okay. (And that's okay.)
I also encourage you to strive to remove the phrase "It's okay." from your parenting vocabulary. I know. It's such a knee-jerk phrase for so many of us when our child starts to come unraveled. It often comes out of our mouths without us even realizing it. And it seems oftentimes that those two simple words can abort an impending parenting disaster (temporarily anyway). But in truth, those feelings need to come out. And they will, one way or another.
Because for your child it isn't okay. And acknowledging that truth is one of the core components of validation. If they are crying or screaming or melting down, everything is not okay in their world. If you feel yourself compelled to convince them otherwise take a deep breath and try gentle validation instead.
Know when to fix it and when to let it be.
And one more though. Your job as parent is not always to fix it. Sometimes we're sad. Angry. Frustrated. And we don't need anyone to make it instantly better. Yes, more peaceful parenting means allowing your child the full expression of their feelings through words, tears, and other non-violent means. Rather than trying to quickly fix what isn't working, we allow our child to feel what they feel and let it all out.
For example, your child has a treat and drops it in the dirt. One common response might be, "Oh! You dropped your sucker. It's okay. Don't cry! I'll get you another one!" A different response (where the parent is validating but not trying to fix what is broken) could be, "Oh, honey. You dropped your sucker and now it's dirty. You feel sad that you can't enjoy your special treat. That is so disappointing." And then they sob, and we hold them in our arms and quietly comfort them simply with our presence.
Because in this life we will sometimes drop our sucker in the dirt (lose a job, be betrayed by a loved one, get a speeding ticket, break our favorite coffee cup) and no one will be able to fix it. I think we're wise as parents to stop fixing what is broken so quickly and allow our children to simply feel what they feel before we scramble to make it right.
If you are fixing it to avoid the uncomfortable feelings (or the uncomfortable expression of feelings), pause. Let them feel. If you are helping them find a solution in order to feel safe and know that their needs are being met, carry on.
Here are some examples of the latter:
A child sees his little sister toddling towards his block castle. He hurries toward her, arms waving, yelling, and blocking her from crossing the room.
"It's okay! She won't break it!" isn't going to make him feel more comfortable. And "It's okay! I can fix it!" won't serve him either, nor will a stern: "Don't treat your sister like that!"
Instead, you kneel beside your children and validate your son. "Hey, I can see you're worried that your sister might wreck your castle. You worked so hard to build it." He nods and says that she always wrecks it and he hates her. You validate that feeling as well. "It must be frustrating to work so hard and then have your castle toppled by someone else." Then you add, "Your sister wants to play, too. Do you think we could build another castle for your sister to play with? We can build it together. Then I'll play with her and her castle so that you can enjoy yours."
You helped find a solution, while acknowledging that the feelings your son had were valid.
Here are a few other examples of how you can validate while seeking solution:
You are visiting a friend, and your child is protesting and arguing about getting into the car. You look for the need, and then validate. "The last time visited she wouldn't share her toys and you're afraid this visit won't be fun either." You add, "I know that you're rather go home, but I want to see my friend today. We're still going to visit, but would you like me to talk to her mama and find a few toys you can play with while we sit together at the table?"
or… "Barking dogs are scary. And their dog is big and loud. I understand. Would you like me to hold you until you feel more comfortable?"
"You want me to buy you that cereal because it has that cute picture on the box. You feel frustrated that I always say no to the cereal with the animals on the package. That must be disappointing for you to hear no every time we come here."
All of these messages tell your child that you understand their feelings, and while the cereal still won't be coming home (no quick fix to quiet the expression), you have validated the emotions and the need that your child is expressing.
Whew. That was a long one. The upshot is look for the need, validate the feeling, and allow the expression.
And see what transforms.
I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on this one.
Here is a link to the first two steps in the series, in case you didn't see them yet.