I recently read this article online, called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”.
To be honest, I did not understand the conclusion of that article after reading it. but I do find the examples the author cited quite interesting and relevant to early childhood mental health.
In one example, the author stated the parent did too much validation and not enough boundary setting when interacting with her preschooler. The parent took time to negotiate with the preschooler whether they should have ice cream on the way home even though it was not ice cream Friday. The result is the parent was persuaded by the child that they would have ice cream that day but not the next day. The conclusion of this story in the article is that parents are pushovers nowadays, they are too soft to their children and have a hard time saying no from their young children’s demands.
I disagree with the author’s conclusion, and do not want to comment whether this parent was right or wrong in submitting to his or her preschooler’s demands. Who am I to judge his or her parenting. The fact is that there are so many ways of parenting. If you Wikipedia “parenting styles,” there are two major styles and various minor styles. Authoritarian and authoritative are the two main parenting styles that we are familiar with. Both of them demand compliance from children. The difference is authoritarian parents are not responsive to children’s emotional needs but the authoritative ones are quite responsive and attuned. Different culture and class may tend to adopt various parenting styles. According to my knowledge, Chinese parents, even Chinese American parents are traditionally authoritarian, which means they do not listen to children’s feelings much. Nowadays, according to my observation, in the Bay Area, young parents, especially those well educated, financially secured ones are more sensitive to their children’s emotional needs and opinions. They listen to children more, validate their opinions and feelings more and relatively more flexible when it comes to rule setting.
What are the benefits of validating your children?
If you are familiar with Kohut, or Self-Psychology, or Narcissistic injury, then this may be quite obvious. In case you are not. Let me explain this. In Heinz Kohut’s book The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders, he extended Freud’s theory of narcissism and coined the concept of ‘selfobject transference’. His idea is that young children do not have the skills to handle their feelings yet and they rely on a caregiver to assume this function for them. The process of the caregiver to be used as the extended self of the child is called selfobject transference. Thurs in this narcissistic developmental stage, young children need to be mirrored and they also need to learn how to soothe themselves when they are overly aroused. When the caregivers mirror children’s feelings and emotions and model how to appease these arousal, the children understand it as coming from themselves instead of from the idealized competent figures- caregivers. If these developmental needs are not met, there is a high chance that they will have difficulties in handling feelings in the future. This challenge can result in substance abuse, eating disorders, and other personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder that are unconsciously developed to defend against painful feelings.
When adopting this self psychology theory in early childhood education, as caregivers and mental health provider, we want to validate young children’s thinking process and emotional states as much as possible. Validation and mirroring helps to build secure attachment bond between young children and caregivers. When the child is securely attached to the caregiver and has learned some self-soothing techniques, like thumb sucking, cuddling with a toy bear, some insignificant failure in attunement and validation can help them to build tolerance to uncomfortable feelings and sensations. Thus, young children learn from experiences when caregivers’ validate their feelings, modeling affect regulation techniques. Through this repeated process, young children gain a sense of empowerment and master the skills to deal with difficult feelings and uncomfortable experiences on their own.
Validation is not in conflict with limit/boundary setting. Let’s use the example earlier. The ice cream case. The parent listens to the child’s reasoning on whether they should have ice cream that day or not, and lets the child knows if he or she is convinced. This process is validation itself. The message it sends to the child is “what you think matters, even though it does not change my decision”. If the parent decides not to have ice cream and the child is upset. There is a greater chance to validate the child’s feelings and letting him or her know that they are healthy and normal. What is most important is that feelings come and go and they do not change the result of their discussion. If the parent decides to get ice cream based on the child’s tantrum, then the boundary is broken and it will be hard to keep the line in the future, since the child may think by acting out emotions he or she can have his or her way. See the trick is to “validate children’s thoughts and feelings, but know where your line is and hold it.” Especially for young children, they need to know what they think and feel matters to you, but they also need to know that you make the final decision so they can trust you and feel safe.