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“Validation” is not Reflective Listening

January 28, 2013

Blogging from a two-day seminar on Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT).  Several of the key concepts of DBT track right along with what are core ideas of Pack Leader Psychology. One concept that I agreed with is that clients with borderline personality disorder and other behaviors that are appropriate for DBT were usually raised by parents who invalidated them. What does this mean? I believe it is very similar to what I blogged about on January 24, “Parents: How to Teach Your Children to Have Low Self-Esteem!”

Quite simply, these parents didn’t listen to their children. Parents are often so busy teaching the right thing to do, that they don’t listen to what the child is expressing and feeling. My opinion, and this is supported by research, is that children know what is the right thing to do in a general way. They know it isn’t right to hit their siblings or torment the dog. But parents are often busy educating kids, not listening to what is going on inside the child.

This happens because so much of what parents communicate is a solution, an external opinion.  The child may be pitching a fit about not wanting to go to his math tutor, but the parent doesn’t ask what is causing this tantrum.  The parent instead immediately launches into why it is important to go, the child must go, because I said so, and any of a million logical reasons. Forget those. The child is acting out because of an emotional response. Use reflective listening to uncover that fear or at least honor the emotion for the child so he can experience it himself.

I think parents do this because this is how they were parented. I know this is how I was raised back in the 60s. For parents it just seems to make sense to explain things to a child instead of ask him how he feels. Besides, those facts are so much more comfortable to discuss than feelings!

But parents often discover that instantly arguing with a child only escalates the argument. And the child never feels listened to.

Well, I was feeling pretty good about DBT at that point, but then the speaker showed a humorous video about “validation.” The storyline was of a guy in a booth who gave a string of compliments and feel-good messages to people: “You are handsome. What beautiful eyes.” The video showed this “Validator” come across a sullen woman who seemed impervious to his upbeat charm. He then worked endlessly to get the woman to respond to his “validations,” Eventually she smiled and changed her attitude. Happily ever after, etc, etc.

This may be what most people mean by validation, but it is not what parents should do with their children (or what therapists should do with clients!) Validation should not be considered “positive reinforcement” and compliments. Validation is not equivalent to approval! To validate someone’s feelings means to honor those emotions as real, rather than disregard them or diminish them.  The point of validation should be to allow the receiver (child or therapy client) to learn to recognize his or her emotions as legitimate and valuable.

Quite the opposite of reflective listening  (see Jan. 24 post), a compliment is merely the giver’s opinion of the receiver. This sort of transaction teaches the receiver that external approval is key to her self-worth – a very dangerous message, in my opinion. It teaches that a parent or other person has power over the child’s reality and diminishes his sense of self. People with borderline personality disorder and many other “mental disorders” are already overly dependent on external approval, so this is exactly the opposite of what they need. They need to be more self-“validating” and self-accepting.

Compliments should be included in therapy in small doses and for specific behaviors. I believe that telling clients they are fabulous and great is dangerous because it is a further denying of the client’s reality, probably something that their parents did to them as children. It shifts the power balance toward the therapist.

Instead I would recommend using the idea of reflective listening, which I explained in full in the Jan. 24 blog. Instead of giving opinions and compliments, ask how the person is feeling and reflect that feeling back.

“Validation” as shown in the video also communicates a type of manipulation: If I give you a compliment I can try to “make you feel” a certain way. The “Validator” was endlessly upbeat, trying to make everyone smile and feel better about themselves. While this may seem positive and pleasant on the surface, this type of communication can be construed as inauthentic.

When in doubt as a parent or therapist: Ask, don’t tell.

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