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Validate, Validate… and then Validate Some More

Working as part of a multi-disciplinary team has taught me so many things. I now know when babies typically take their first steps, how many words a two-year old should have, and how to properly interpret the results of a psycho-educational assessment… just to name a few! Yet, the biggest lesson I’ve taken away has nothing to do with actual development, milestones, or skills. Rather, it’s the importance of acknowledging (and accepting) another person’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions. In other words, validating!

You might be wondering, why is a blog about validation, something that would more typically be addressed by a psychologist or social worker, written by an occupational therapist (OT)? Isn’t it associated with communication style, and what type of language to use to manage conflict? Doesn’t it relate to parenting and relationships? While it’s certainly important in all of those areas, I strongly believe that anyone and everyone should be aware of this powerful communication tool, especially those interacting with children.

The idea for this blog came to me last week. I was working with a five-year old on printing, and he (repeatedly) said to me, “Jordana, it’s too hard”. As an OT, I pride myself on my ability to plan sessions that are fun and engaging, while providing “just right challenges” to successfully target goals. Everything about the activity was well within the realm of what I knew he could do, so why on earth was he complaining about it being hard? It was in that moment that I realized how effective validation really is… something that I now do almost instinctively. I could have easily disputed him and said, “It’s not that hard, I know you can do it”, but what would that accomplish? He probably would have reluctantly proceeded, and been left feeling like he wasn’t being heard. Further to this, he likely would have internalized my comments, and believed that something was wrong with him for feeling a certain way. Instead, I repeated his feelings back to him (“I know that this feels hard”), and we worked together to slightly adapt the activity. It was almost as though a light switch went off once I acknowledged how he felt, and we were right back on track. That was the last I heard of it being hard!

As adults, we are so quick to brush off a child’s feelings, especially if they don’t seem expected in a given moment. If there’s one thing I know forsure, it’s that no one can tell you how to feel. Challenging a child is just going to result in opposition, thus the better tactic is to acknowledge the feeling (even if you don’t agree), and work towards sorting through it and/or coming up with a solution, if applicable. I can almost guarantee you that the connection will instantly be enhanced!

So, how can YOU validate; here are some tips:

  • Show a child that you’re interested in what they are saying by maintaining eye contact and offering appropriate gestures (i.e. nodding)
  • Repeat back to the child what they have said, but start with, “I know that you…”, “It seems like you’re feeling…”, or “I get that…”
  • Never dispute, disagree with, or challenge a child’s feelings
  • Talk about feelings, and use these as teaching moments to expand on emotional vocabularies – perhaps next time they’ll use a more appropriate word

Although it’s often easier said than done, and it certainly isn’t going to stop a level 10 meltdown, validation can be extremely powerful. It assures the child that you “get it”, and can strengthen your bond/relationship as a result. You don’t have to be a therapist or parent to use this communication technique, and now that you’re aware of it, I’m sure you’ll find yourself validating more regularly. It’s unbelievable what making subtle changes in your language can do!

Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

About Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

Jordana is a certified Occupational Therapist who received a Master of Science degree in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy from the University of Toronto and an Honour’s Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Western Ontario. Jordana is a member in good standing of the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario (COTO) and the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists (OSOT).

Learn more about Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

  • Maxine Share

    Great advice, Jordana.

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