Emotional validation is essential for students’ wellbeing – here’s how to make it happen

Validation – the polar opposite to invalidation – is one of the most powerful and important tools in any relationship.
A powerful technique

Emotional invalidation occurs when an individual’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored or judged. It results in the individual feeling as though we don’t understand them or their feelings, or we simply don’t care about them.

In her book The Power of Validation, psychologist Dr Karyn Hall outlines the many different forms of invalidation, including blaming (‘you always have to be the crybaby and ruin every holiday’), hoovering feelings (‘it's not such a big deal’), judging (‘you are overreacting’) and ridicule (‘here we go again, crying over nothing’). Other forms of invalidation include denying, minimising, and nonverbal invalidation including eye-rolling or impatiently checking the time whilst talking with someone.

A child experiencing invalidation may escalate their behaviour in an attempt to be heard and validated, or they may shut down and/or withdraw in an attempt to protect themselves.

In my role as a school psychologist I often see parents that would move mountains to ease their child’s pain, but then with good intentions create more pain through emotional invalidation.

How to validate
Validation – the polar opposite to invalidation – is one of the most powerful and important tools in any relationship, whether it’s between teacher and student, parent and child, psychologist and patient, partners or friends. Emotional validation is the process of being interested, learning, understanding and expressing acceptance of another person's emotional experience.

This is a skill that every educator should work on strengthening, or at the very least, be aware of the difference between validation and invalidation. Some tips include remaining present and utilising active listening skills. These including having an open posture, nodding, eye contact, and a non-judgmental stance. This step may also involve acknowledging and remaining present with your own uncomfortable feelings that may arise as a result of the interaction.

The next step involves reflecting the content back to the individual, which demonstrates that they are understood, and will likely reduce conflict and increase cohesion. It also provides an opportunity for the message to be corrected, if required, so that both people are attuned. Also, when dealing with a teenager that is driving the emotional equivalent of a Ferrari (0 – 100 in 2.7 seconds), this can be valuable time that may assist them to regulate.

The final step is to reflect back to them the feeling that they may be experiencing, and then normalise their response for them. For example, this might look like:

You: “Jonny, one of your friends made a comment about your hair in front of the whole class and everyone laughed? I could imagine you would have felt embarrassed and even angry. If my friend made a derogatory remark to me and everyone at work was laughing at me, I would feel the exact same way.”

Jonny: “Yes, that is right!”

You: “Jonny, is it okay if we slowed this down and maybe understand it a bit more?”

<Johnny nods>

You: “What was it exactly that your friend said and what could be their possible motivation for saying this?”

Often when done effectively, validation creates a safe place that paves the way for the underlying issue to emerge. When we validate someone’s feelings and perspective, we are not agreeing with them nor are we even suggesting that their feelings/thoughts are healthy and/or based in logic.

Validation is not unjustly admitting wrongdoing, agreeing, approving or conceding; it is just acknowledging that it is human to experience a variety of emotions and that we accept them as a person. It is also a way of communicating that the relationship is important, even in the midst of disagreement.

Given that we are social creatures and need one another for survival, when we are accepted and validated in the ways described above, it creates a safety within us that is a necessary building block for wellbeing and security.

About the author
Greg Cameron is a Psychologist at Waverley College

Greg Cameron is an experienced psychologist with over 10 years’ experience working in various schools, organisations, private, and forensic settings. He is currently working at Waverley college. Whilst his approach is personal with a focus on establishing rapport through warmth and understanding, he loves to work on a meta-level when guiding and implementing creative solutions.