Helping children using validation and empathy
Fight or flight: most people are inclined toward one or the other. It’s a natural response to fear and stress, and with the right guidance, children can learn to navigate the waters of new feelings and experiences.
As Hey Sigmund addressed in their article about children and anxiety, parents’ best bet is to normalize the behavior. “Explain that: Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life – before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school. [And] Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away.”
Children often experience the feelings of fear and loneliness in instances outside of anxiety, so see it as an opportunity to practice mindful parenting by validating and empathizing with your children.
Let your children know “it’s okay to feel” because feelings are neither right or wrong. Using statements like “I would feel the same way, too” and giving examples of times you went through something similar are ways to engage your children in conversation.
Children must be given the tools with which to manage anxiety and must be taught how to use those tools. Developing the ability to recognize their “stinkin’thinkin'” and change their thinking to be more balanced and realistic is the key, i.e. “Sometimes when I get really nervous I think I am going to fail. After I take a big belly breath and my brain feels calmer, I’m able to remember that I am smart and can do a lot of things. I have to change my stinkin’ thinkin’ to “I can do this!” and make that the loudest voice in my head. Then I start to feel better.”
Anxiety, fear and loneliness can convince a child that she is alone in the struggle. Empathizing and validating emotions assists children in calming their distressing feelings and allows their brains to independently move into solution finding with more ease (Siegle and Payne, The Whole Brained Child). As parents, we want to fix things. Often, it is more important for the child to know they can “fix it” on their own. Validation allows this for the child. It also teaches children to stop using their feelings as facts (i.e. “because I feel lonely no one likes me.”) – something that causes trouble for many of us.
When you validate their feelings and empathize with their experience, they can find the courage to work through their feelings, toward a sense of wholeness again.
Interested in learning more about interacting with your children in a way that fosters strong emotional family relationships? Holly is leading a 6-week series on Mindful Parenting at MBHA. Get registered online or by calling the office.