Validation – How to Bring Calm, Connection, and Influence to Big Feelings

When our kids or teens mess up – which they will, because they’re humans, not robots – the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it. 

In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for fight or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.

What happens to brains and bodies during big feelings. The Science.

During big feelings (for all of us) the brain is hijacked by the impulsive, instinctive amygdala. This is the part of the brain that works hard to keep us safe. When the amygdala registers threat, one of the ways it keeps us safe is by charging the brain and body up with a mix of powerful neurochemicals. These are designed to get our bodies ready to fight the danger or run away from it. But there’s another way this neurochemical surge works to keep us safe.  It charges up big feelings.

Big feelings are one of the ways the brain recruits support. When we’re in big feelings, people notice. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’ll always get the ‘noticing’ that feels lovely but we’re more likely to be seen. Brains are there to keep us safe, and the best way for us humans to stay safe is with the help of other humans. It’s worked well for us up to now. We’ve survived for as long as we have because we’ve banded together in groups and helped each other out, not because we’ve been the fastest, smartest, or strongest. What this means is that being seen in some way, even if it’s not in the most adorable way, is better (safer) than not being seen at all. 

But honestly, the things that can trigger big feelings can be … oh my gosh don’t even start me. What about when big feelings happen over little things.

Just because the amygdala has registered ‘threat’, doesn’t mean there is actually a danger. ‘Threat’ for a protective, strong, healthy amygdala includes anything that comes with any chance at all of humiliation, judgement, separation or disconnection from an important person, exclusion, missing out on something important, or messing up something important. They’re the things that can make us all wobble.

There is no such thing as a ‘little thing’ for the amygdala. They’re smart, powerful, and brilliant, but they can all be a bit dramatic at times. The amygdala is like a smoke alarm. It assumes all smoke is from a blazing fire, even if it’s a ‘just-burnt-toast-nothing-to-worry-about’ kind of smoke.

When the amygdala registers threat, one of the first things it does is shut down the ‘thinking brain’. This is the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain. It’s the part that can think through consequences, calm big feelings, make deliberate decisions, learn, and think rationally. This is why we can all make ‘not great’ decisions when we’re anxious, angry, sad, or why big feelings might come with spicy words or behaviour.

When children or teens are in big feelings, it’s impossible to guide, lead or teach them. Lecturing, preaching, and sending them for time out to think about what they’ve done is useless because the part of the brain that can actually think or learn isn’t available. 

The first thing we have to do then is bring the brain back to safety. This will calm the amygdala and bring the thinking brain on board. Then, we have influence. But how? Through validation.

How it works.

Validation says to the amygdala – ‘I see you, I’m here, and you can step down now. I can take it from here.’ This will help the amygdala feel safe enough to let go of the wheel, and make way for the thinking brain to come back.

The power of validation lies in its capacity to bring us close enough to reach our kids and teens when they need us most. It lets us guide them from inside the relationship, in that precious space that exists when they feel understood – not just heard, but truly and deeply understood by you.

Children and teens will never have a greater felt sense of safety than when they are feeling close to you. This means the thinking brain will never be more available for learning, leading, influencing, and guiding. 

Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them. It means we feel with them.

Validation doesn’t mean you agree with them, and it doesn’t mean you approve of their behaviour. It means you see the world or the situation as they see it right now, without judgement or a need to fix it.

It’s a way of letting them know that we can see how they feel or the need behind how they feel, and we don’t need to change it. It says, ‘I see there is something happening here that doesn’t feel okay.’ It makes our intent clear, and our intent is to see them, hear them, and be with them. This might sound something like:

  • ‘I get that your angry with me right now. You feel as though I’ve stopped you from doing something that is important to you. It’s okay to be angry. I’d be angry too.’ Or,
  • ‘No wonder you’re upset. That really sucks.’ Or, 
  • ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you help me?’ 
  • It can also look like nodding, facial expressions that let them know you’re with them, or vocal bursts (uh-huh, mm-hmm,).
  • Sometimes it might look like sitting cross-legged on the floor with them for a while, because their day came with spikes, and it’s softer and quieter down there. 

Remember though, whatever words you use, your words will often be the thing the hear the least. Validation happens most powerfully through non-verbals, so it’s important that your nonverbal communicate your intent, which is to be with them, to understand them, and not to judge, shame, or abandon them.

Your posture matters. Is it warm and open, or ‘big’, or closed off? The tone of your voice and your facial expressions matter. Do they clearly communicate your intent, or are they too neutral and open to misinterpretation?

Sometimes words can get in the way. Think of what you might need if you were telling a friend about something big that happened to you. You don’t need your friend to tell you she sees how upset you are. Of course, that might be lovely, but it isn’t the only thing. What you are looking for is, ‘Do you get me? Do you get why I’m upset? Do you see me? Do you feel me?’ We see the answer in faces before anything else.

When you don’t have the words, or when the words seem to annoy them, just feel what they’re feeling. You don’t have to do more than that. Receive their faces. Whenever you can, look through the behaviour and the words and receive their faces. Receive their fear, their sadness, their frustration, their anger, their loneliness, and just hold it in you for a moment so they can feel you with them. 

Let them feel your heart and mind open, and your arms extended in invitation as you widen the space for them and everything that comes with them in that moment. The message is, ‘I can handle you, and everything that comes with you’.

Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. If there is a need to chat about behaviour, there will be a time for that, but in the midst of big feelings is that not that time.

Validating them, or their feelings, or their needs, doesn’t mean they will instantly calm and see things your way, but ultimately it will strengthen your connection and your influence. It’s about helping them feel understood, even when things (or they) get messy. If they feel understood by us, it opens the way for them to trust us when we say, ‘I know you can do this,’ or, ‘Let’s talk about what you might do differently next time?’, or, ‘You can come to me about anything.’

In the moment, it’s less about what you do, and more about who you are.

When feelings are on fire, and behaviour is big, we don’t have to ‘fix’ those feelings. Of course, when our children are in pain, the drive to do ‘something’ to fix that pain might feel seismic, but we don’t need to fix them. They aren’t broken. They want what we all want when the world feels too big – to feel safe, seen and heard. 

When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this as being an anchor for their distressed nervous system. An anchor doesn’t try to fix anything. It doesn’t have an agenda and it doesn’t add to the turbulence. It just holds things strong and steady, all the while having enough ‘give’, between itself and the boat to be able to adapt to the conditions.

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, that they can walk it on their own.

And when they’re behaviour is big …

Of course, this doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. Be firm on the behaviour, gentle on the relationship. Flag the behaviour if you need to: ‘I know you are angry with me. Angry is okay. Those words aren’t.’ Then, move quickly to the relationship. This can look like acknowledging the feeling, the need behind the feeling, or being with them without needing them to be different for a while (‘I’m right here.’)

What it means is letting them know that we see them and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that, and what they can do differently in the future.

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them – ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you do this differently next time?’ ‘You’re a really great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ 

How validation brings them closer and builds our influence. 

The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat – and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, and humiliation all count as ‘threat’, even if they come with loads of loving intent. When we validate what our children are feeling, or the need they are trying to meet through their behaviour, we take away their need to fight us or flee (ignore) us.

If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala by sending the message that we aren’t a threat and that we can handle whatever is happening. We mightn’t like it, but we can handle it. 

When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.

And finally …

It’s not our job to fix their feelings, but to hold their distress with tender, safe, loving hands, until those feelings are small enough again. We do this by meeting them where they are, without needing them to be different. We bring a strong, safe, loving presence. We see them. We breathe. We validate. We stay with. And we wait for the feelings to calm. Then, we hand those back in a way they can talk about, learn about, listen to, and grow from. And we don’t need to do more than that.

Validation lets us do the work from within the relationship. It’s from here that we will have the most influence, and be most able to understand, redirect, or talk about what needs to happen next. It lets us connect with them, which is necessary if we want to lead them.

Don’t underestimate the power of you. It won’t always be obvious, and you won’t always be thanked for it, but your presence has a profound capacity to help them feel safe, seen and soothed. Sometimes, for certain, it will be everything.

5 Comments

Roland

Your posts are always useful, I use what I have learned from you almost daily and my kids lives are the better for it.

Reply
Larry W

I found this article extremely helpful. Any suggestions on how to do all this when you are in the middle of teaching a class?

Reply
Karen Young

It can be difficult when you’re the one adult for many young ones. Wherever possible, try to bring another adult in from outside the classroom who can provide the calm and presence needed to bring the brain back to felt safety. Ideally, someone the child feels safe with and cared about by. In time, support your student with how they might access this person or strategies when they need to, or when they feel themselves starting to wobble.

Reply
Wendy R.

Thank-you for this. A good reminder on how to properly handle things when the going gets tough. I needed to read this today.

Gratefully,

Wendy

Reply
Saul G

Thank you for reminding us how to improve and be more present humans with our children.

Kindly,

Saul

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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