The Single Most Helpful Strategy in Raising Your Child
Kids with ADHD have big emotions, and parents shouldn’t act like they don’t matter. Learn how to validate your child’s feelings from a pro parent.
(This blog is an excerpt from Penny Williams’ book, The Insider’s Guide to ADHD.)
The single most helpful strategy for parents of kids with ADHD is validating your child’s thoughts and feelings by showing interest and empathy in them. Sometimes, a child’s emotional intensity is fueled by a parent saying, “you’re overreacting,” “you’re acting like a baby,” or “you’re stretching the truth.”
Kids are people, too. Their feelings matter, even if they react in a manner out of proportion to the situation and/or their age. Minimizing or dismissing their thoughts and feelings makes them feel like their ideas and/or problems don’t matter — like they don’t matter. Validating their thoughts and feelings, in turn, makes them feel understood and loved. Isn’t that what we crave in life?
Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, says, “Understanding your child is just as important, if not more important, than loving them. Contrary to what many frustrated parents may think, particularly during those stressful times of conflicts, validating feelings is not condoning bad choices or giving in to defiant behavior. Validating your child conveys deep empathy.”
In her 1993 book Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., writes, “[Validation] communicates that [their] responses make sense and are understandable within [their] current life context or situation.” This is true for ADHD, too. Validating a child’s feelings acknowledges that their emotions are understandable within their viewpoint, through the lens of ADHD.
Here’s an example of how I validate my child’s emotions:
Ricochet hangs out a lot with his cousin, Creative H. She is a year younger than him, and they have similar interests. Since I work at home, Creative H comes over to hang out with us on days when there’s no school. On this particular day, the two were getting along better than ever. They giggled and laughed all day long.
At 4 o’clock, I noticed that the laughing had stopped and the tone of Ricochet’s voice had become a little stern. By the time I was able to see what was going on, Ricochet flew past me down the hall and threw himself onto his bed. He wrapped himself tight in a super-hot blanket, with just his furrowed scowl peeking out.
“Hey, Buddy,” I said compassionately. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“She kept fighting with me about taking one of my chairs. She wouldn’t stop asking over and over, even though I told her it was up to you,” he answered.
“Wow. I bet that was frustrating for you, huh?”
“We have two of those chairs, and you can use only one at a time. What if we let her borrow one?” I proposed.
“That fine.” There was an awkward pause, and I could see he had more to say.
“You can tell me everything, Buddy. It’s OK.”
“She called me ‘insane,'” he yelled.
“Oh, sweetie. That hurt your feelings, didn’t it?”
He nodded again.
“I know she didn’t mean it. We all say things we don’t mean sometimes when we’re angry.”
That little bit of validation and acknowledging how he felt (see the phrases in italics) turned a situation the might have resulted in two or more hours of sulking — and maybe a meltdown — into 30 minutes of recovery. In addition, had I not understood his feelings, he probably wouldn’t have told me the full story, which allowed me to understand the root of his pain.
There are many ways to validate a child’s feelings. Here are my favorite validating phrases:
- “I know it’s hard to wait…”
- “That must have hurt…”
- “It’s hard when you don’t do as well as you wanted to…”
- “It feels bad to lose…”
- “We all get angry when…”
- “I can see you are feeling…”
- “That can be really annoying…”
- “I feel the same way when…”
- “I bet you are sad because…”
- “I know what you mean…”
- “How can I help you?”
Another way to validate our kids’ thoughts and feelings is to give them a voice in treatment decisions. “The best thing my parents did for me as a child with ADHD was to allow me to make decisions about therapy and medication,” says Ella. “They were very supportive of my voice when creating my 504 Plan and IEP, too.”
It’s not just up to parents to validate their kids’ thoughts and feelings. Teachers can make an important contribution, as well. “The best thing a teacher ever did for me was make me feel important when it came to my ideas and projects,” says Carson, whose ADHD was diagnosed at age four.
Jill explained the importance of validation from teachers by sharing this story:
“When I got something wrong on a test, my amazing teacher said to me, ‘Take it home. Find the answer. Write it on the test for me.’
“But I’m not showing you that I was able to study it and answer it on the test.”
‘Are you finding the right answer?’ she asked. ‘Will you know what the right answer is when you enter it on the test?’
‘Then you showed me that you went home and learned what the right answer was. What more do I need to see?’
“I had never felt so relieved and understood in my whole life. This teacher inspired me to go into the field of education. I’m so thankful that I was in her class. I will never forget her.”
Melissa sums it up: The best thing my parents did for me was “let me be myself.” There is no greater validation than that.