With the best of intentions, we can invalidate our kids in subtle ways that make it harder for them to move through their feelings in a healthy manner. Janet responds to three questions from listeners who each recount a specific difficulty they’re experiencing with their kids’ behaviors. These are thoughtful, patient, respectful parents, yet their problems seem to persist. They feel they just can’t get through to their child. Janet identifies a common thread in these parents’ stories and explains how and why they could be inadvertently invalidating their children’s feelings. She offers suggestions for how they might look beyond the problem to understand and address the cause.
Transcript of “How We Invalidate Our Kids Without Meaning To (And What to Do Instead)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be talking about invalidating our children’s feelings, their point of view, their experience. I’m not talking about extreme gaslighting-type invalidations that I doubt any of you listening would do. What I want to discuss today are these subtle moments of pushing back on what our child is expressing and how, by doing this, we don’t get the results that we’re hoping for, which is for our child to feel better, for our child to know that their feelings are okay, for them to have that self-worth. Because when children act out of that self-worth, they behave better, right? Just like all of us. So I’m going to bring up some specific examples, but please know that all of these specifics represent lots and lots of different situations parents have shared with me, situations I’ve experienced myself, where we have this tendency to invalidate, and it gets in our way.
Okay, so here’s a note I want to start out with. It was a brief little message exchange that I had somewhere on social media, I can’t remember where now, where this parent shared:
My son melts when he loses a game, starts talking negatively about himself. I tell him it’s okay to be sad, but that it bothers me that he talks about someone I love that way. This literally happened tonight. I’m so worried I did the wrong thing. My husband chose to tell him it’s not okay to be a sore loser. I just want to do the right thing.
Now, here’s how I briefly responded:
The dad’s response may be where those feelings of shame are coming from. It’s great that you don’t share that same approach. I would encourage your little guy to express all those feelings rather than doing the normal thing for most of us, which is saying that it bothers you and he shouldn’t say what he’s feeling. So maybe next time, Ah, you’re feeling like you’re a terrible player, like you can’t do anything right. Whatever he expresses, let those feelings have a life. That’s how children move through them. This is very challenging, so please be patient with yourself.
I thought this situation is interesting because there’s actually two different kinds of invalidations that are happening. First, it sounds like the dad wants to correct the feelings his son is expressing about losing a game. The dad is doing what so many of us do: we see the problem, and instead of being curious and wanting to know about why this was such an upsetting experience for our child, we see the problem. We see the Uh-oh, my child’s going to be a bad loser, and I’ve got to correct that. Now all these things, please note, we do them out of love. So, again, this is not about some terrible, tragic things that parents are doing with their children. It’s not that at all. These are nuances that, again, get in our way.
So, what happens when we tell our child they should be okay with losing the game? They shouldn’t have this strong reaction to that. They shouldn’t feel sad. It doesn’t make our child feel, Oh, okay, I can handle this now. I can lose gracefully because that’s what I’m supposed to do. What it does is it invalidates their actual feeling. And so that feeling becomes something that feels wrong about that child to them: I feel this way and I’m not supposed to feel this way. What’s wrong with me? And what that does is it makes it really, really hard for him to be a good loser when it’s not going his way. Because now his self-esteem, his sense of self-worth, has taken a hit. Which means now he is going to invest even more in feeling validated from the outside. I’ve got to win. If I don’t win, that just reminds me of what a loser I am. When we have a strong sense of self-worth, we can be magnanimous. We still feel disappointed, but it doesn’t affect us so deeply.
Now with young children in this situation particularly, if there’s other criticisms coming at them in their life, like maybe they have a younger sibling and they don’t always feel so nice to that sibling and they feel the parents kind of turning away from them for that reason, or there are other behaviors that they’ve struggled to control that they feel judged for, this idea of winning or losing a game, even a little game, they can have this strong, cathartic reaction that is maybe loaded with other hurts that they’ve been feeling. And so they do tend to overreact. Young children do. They’re much more in tune with their feelings and they’re much more likely to express them all the way. So it’s very common that children up to the age of six or seven are “sore losers.”
And how do we help them to be “better” losers? We accept where they are in this journey and we’re interested in, even, How much you wanted to win that. That meant a lot to you. Yeah, you tried really hard and, ah, that’s so disappointing. If we could validate that, we will help our child to feel, Yeah, that’s what I felt. And I’m not even sure why, but it was a big deal to me. And now my parent is assuring me that it’s okay to feel that way. That’s how children build resilience. Those are those building blocks of self-worth that we are not completely responsible for as parents, but we do have a strong effect on. So helping our child to become a better loser or a more graceful anything or a less emotional, more tempered human being, the process is different than what we might think. It’s not this direct, Well, if I just tell them they should, they will! But again, I’m not singling out this family or anything. This way of going at things is so pervasive in our culture. We think we’re teaching when in fact we’re undermining the lessons that we hope to teach.
And so then this boy, it sounds like he has some shame and he’s sharing about his loss that way with his mother. She says he starts talking negatively about himself. And I can understand how heartbreaking it is, this negative self-talk. It does hurt us. And so it’s extremely challenging to be able to accept and validate those kinds of feelings, right?
And also to us as adults, we tend to see things as set. We tend to see in a more fixed manner. So, if our child’s saying these things about themselves, this is a done deal. This is how they feel. Instead of, this is a feeling passing through them, this is what’s going on with them in their psyche right now. What a gift that he’s sharing this with me instead of just saying it to himself, so that I can help him with this. I can help him to know that all of these things he’s feeling are normal and fine to feel.
And this mom says, “I’m so worried I did the wrong thing. I just want to do the right thing.”
Gosh, I feel that every minute as a parent. And it’s not like she’s doing something that’s wrong in a way that’s harmful to her son. It’s just this little adjustment that will help his process with loss and help everything go more smoothly. When we open those channels, This is how you feel, instead of shutting them down, children move through them. They don’t get stuck there. They might go on for a week or two or three, but it’s still a process that’s in motion.
So if we could right away see all feelings and all expressions as a gift for us and something to accept and validate, parenting would still be scary. I mean, very scary, right? When we open up to that, You don’t like yourself right now, you feel like you’re this or that. It feels like we’re going to make it all worse, that we’re saying it too, that we’re putting it out there in the open with him. So it’s this brave thing that we try to do, but it makes everything so much easier and we see the effect that it has on our child.
And here are some of the ideas that get in our way. This parent says that she told her son, “I tell him it’s okay to be sad, but that it bothers me that he talks about someone I love that way.” What a loving, beautiful thing to say. And maybe to an adult that could be taken very positively, but for this little boy who’s still trying to figure it all out and he’s still in the feeling, to feel like it’s bothering his parent… and we do this about a lot of things, we kind of make it about us: I’m not comfortable when you’re upset, so I’m acknowledging your feeling, but I’m really uncomfortable, and I’m actually only acknowledging your feeling because I want you to feel better [so I’m saying words, tension is] I want you to help me feel better.
Boy, do I understand this as a parent, and I’m telling you with three adult children, it continues. As my mother-in-law says, we’re only as happy as our least happy child. And we’ll never want our children to feel anything that’s not entirely positive. We’re never going to want that. So, this is what we’re up against. And I think it’s just important to acknowledge that. There’s nothing wrong with us for not winning that battle with this incredible love and vulnerability we have about our children.
Another thing we do is going at the problem before really opening up to and understanding where it’s coming from. So we’re going to, Oh, he’s being a sore loser, or, Oh, he’s thinking bad things about himself. Seeing it as a problem, we want to correct it. We don’t want to let our kid go off and be a sore loser with their friends. That’s a positive goal, right? But again, it just doesn’t work that way, that we can make those things happen. Everything for our child has to come from the inside out, making peace with their feelings, processing them through being able to behave “better” because they feel better. They feel safe in who they are, totally accepted. They have that trust in us, and therefore themselves. Staying in tune with those feelings that they’re having. How important is that as a life skill, and how often do we tend to kind of lose our way with that as we get older? I know I have. Not trusting my perspective on a situation, not trusting that it’s okay to feel what I feel.
We can help our children have a lot of these tools that we didn’t get, with just this one, very challenging idea: Let it in. Keep those channels wide open. Be curious. Open up that space.
Okay, here’s another specific example:
I have two boys, nearly six and nearly two, and my question is about the older one. Of course, we have our struggles with cooperation and boundaries once in a while, but for the most part that is manageable. My question is actually about how to encourage him to take decisions about things. He’s generally unwilling to put his opinion on things out there. It’s like he’s afraid to be wrong. We really don’t know where this is coming from, as we’ve tried since he was a toddler to welcome his feelings and encourage his curiosity. But it seems to me that he has a bit of a perfectionist streak and is worried about taking the wrong choice.
This shows itself in many ways, from being disinterested in what he wants to wear to often answering “both” when asked to choose between two items. Even choosing a birthday gift for a friend, he just freezes. We also have a practice every day before bed of sharing the best part of our day. And he opts out most nights by saying, “Everything. Everything was the best part.” If you ask him point-blank to share a preference, you will get nothing out of him 90% of the time. Now, it’s not that he doesn’t have opinions, he exerts them regularly when he refuses to do things or chooses what to play with or to read. He attends a Montessori kindergarten, so he does this daily, as well as at home. But it’s the ability to make a choice and take a stand on something when asked directly that has me concerned.
He will be starting traditional first grade in the fall, and I’m worried that the pressure of the classroom setting might freeze him right up. He’s a really sensitive guy, easy to cry, very empathic. And so the idea of him being called on in class and not being able or willing to share his opinion makes me very worried. I’m also quite tired of having to choose things for him as he is old enough now to to take his own decisions on certain things. Is there something here that I’m missing? Do you have any guidance that can help us to help him feel more comfortable sharing his preferences when asked directly?
I should also note that when he really wants something —the radio station change, five more minutes to read before bed— when those desires are not met with a yes, he can erupt quite loudly and dramatically. He does have preferences, but just seems to hate being put on the spot. Any insights or guidance you can provide would be immensely appreciated.
Another example of perfectionist tendency is that he doesn’t like to try new things in front of others. When he got a yo-yo or a hula hoop, regardless if myself or my husband were there with him with our own toys trying to practice together, he wants to go in his room and try it alone before doing it with anyone else.
First of all, I don’t know about the hula hoop part, but the rest of it, this could be me. This guy could be me. If you ask me, What’s your favorite this? or What’s the best thing that happened today? my mind goes totally blank. Yes, I freeze. A gift for a friend or anybody, oh my gosh, I agonize over those kinds of decisions.
And what’s interesting that sort of comes out at the end of this note, this parent says that they’ve made a concerted effort to accept all feelings. And I believe that’s true. But there’s always these ones that we kind of miss, that get away from us as parents, all of us. I’ve never met somebody that was perfect at this. We overlook things because we’re in our own heads, we’re in our own perspective. And it’s helpful to me when she says at the end that when he does want something and he doesn’t get it, he has a strong reaction. I wonder if he feels some disapproval about the way that he has those overblown reactions. It would be hard not to show some disapproval as a parent to that. So he’s taking that in: when he doesn’t get what he wants and he’s got strong feelings about that, and that’s not totally welcome and acceptable.
And so, sort of similar to the boy who didn’t like losing the game, I have a feeling that might be part of this. That he’s been judged for expressing himself so strongly and maybe has a little bit of shame or disappointment in himself about that, making him less sure. Even a simple decision can sometimes be harder.
So it seems that there’s something, maybe it’s this parent’s own experience or something, that’s making her really focus on this idea that her son should be able to make these decisions. When in fact, he may not even care that much about some of these things, like what he wears. As she points out, he doesn’t like being on the spot. I don’t like being on the spot either. My mind goes blank, and I’m a lot older than this boy. So, I don’t know, that seems normal to me.
And the thing about the hula hoops and not wanting to make a mistake in front of people, I think that’s related more to his overall feeling of, Is he really accepted as he is, with all his idiosyncrasies, with his strong feelings when he doesn’t get his way, when he’s not sure about a decision? Can all of that be okay? Something that you welcome, This is just him. This is where he’s at right now. Removing all that judgment of where he should be and what he should be able to do, getting all of that out of the picture. And just freeing him in his process to figure some of this out.
Sometimes as parents, we get into the fear so easily, we get into that uh-oh so fast. And it’s like we’re getting on that train and it’s taking us past all these things that would really help us to get where we want to be with our child. So in terms of guidance, I would work on her expectation of what he should be doing right now, and open up to what he is doing. Why some decisions are harder than others, why he chooses not to make a decision a lot of the time, even what he’s afraid of. When we can go to those open spaces with our children, those curious places where we’re not letting our own agenda get in the way or our own feelings, we can learn a lot. And that’s how we build trust.
I have another question here. This parent says:
My girls are aged eight, six, and 18 months. The main problem is my eight-year-old being mean to my six-year-old’s best friend.
The three girls used to play together beautifully. Last year the friend moved around the corner. As we saw each other more, my eight-year-old became hostile. Not wanting the friend to come for playdates, not wanting to walk to and from school together. It’s an awkward situation, as we walk the same way. Sometimes we split up. Sometimes I try, futilely, to distract, calm her. Lately I just avoid the situation by driving. Once I offered her $2 to be kind. She ignored my pleas to stop anyway. Not good parenting, but desperate.
I think my eight-year-old feels jealous and insecure about her sister’s friend. I’ve tried talking about her feelings— jealousy, loneliness, left out, sad. She kind of agrees, although not to jealousy, but insists the friend is mean and excludes her. When I ask how she’s mean, she says “she hurts my ears,” meaning she’s loud.
I’m trying to stop her behavior with rules like, Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Don’t talk about other people when they’re not there. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Last night, the friend’s mom, who I consider a friend, said her daughter thinks my eight-year-old hates her. I apologized again and discussed her behavior and how I’m trying to deal with it. When I told my daughter that the friend thinks she doesn’t like her, she simply said, “I don’t.” I’m not sure what to say: It’s okay that you don’t like her, but you have to be nice? I also worry that focusing too much attention on the situation will further entrench her feelings. I know I can’t change how my daughter feels. I guess I need a way to stop the behavior. I’m not even sure if her behavior is normal, age-appropriate.
So, I feel like this is another example of a very loving, well-intentioned parent getting caught up in the problem and, by doing so, putting on blinders to understanding and really accepting her daughter’s point of view. She says that she talked to her about the feelings, but that she suggested all these ideas, that it could be jealousy, it could be this or that. And what I would encourage is, instead of talking, really openly listening. Openly listening, without judgment. What is it that you really don’t like about her? Oh, she hurts your ears. Does she talk loudly? She really gets under your skin, right? She really bothers you. And then, space, allowing for. We have to be careful because as soon as we indicate some kind of judgment back, Well, you can’t do this, but you can do that, or whatever it is, we’re shutting the door. Our child does not feel safe to tell us. Like in the last example, he doesn’t feel safe to have an opinion when he feels like his opinions and his feelings about not getting his choices aren’t welcome.
So, it’s all welcome. I really want to know, and I’m not impatient about it, I’m not going to judge you. I’m like a friend, being just curious and wanting to explore this. Because there’s got to be a reason. She may not totally even understand the reason herself. But if she feels safe to share how much she really doesn’t like this girl and how awful it is for her to walk with her, and we can welcome that as much as she needs to share it, she will process this through. And she will feel better about the girl, because it’s always true. When we’re able to share these feelings with someone and we feel that trust, It’s deeply okay to feel what we feel, there’s nothing wrong with us for that, then we start to open our hearts to being okay. We feel better. We can be better losers. We can make more decisions because we feel better about ourselves. We feel acceptable. That’s all any of us want, and it’s what we want for our children, too.
Here’s what I said back to this parent:
Could it be okay for your eight-year-old to not like this girl? It sounds like you’re pushing back on her behavior and judging it (all understandable on your part), rather than welcoming her opinion and sincerely wanting to understand. The problem with that is that it creates distance between you, and that distance makes your child feel judged, and then even more inclined to dislike this person. I’m sure she has her reasons and they’re amplified by the fact that this girl is bringing about judgment and a rift between your daughter and you. In other words, I’d come from a place of more acceptance and curiosity, staying on your child’s side and really wanting to understand where she’s coming from.
So, I hope some of this helps and makes sense to you all.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.