The biosocial theory states that some people are born with a genetic predisposition to being emotionally sensitive. These individuals are emotionally reactive and have a hard time coming back to their baseline calm; and when the genetic predisposition is coupled with an invalidating environment it causes the child or teen to develop a pattern of difficulty in regulating their own emotions.
In an invalidating environment there may or may not be a history of abuse. More likely, it is a home or environment where the child or teen feels ignored, ridiculed, denied of their feelings or experience, or feels judged. In essence, the child or teen does not feel heard or understood. And typically, invalidation can be present in many places in their life: home, school, church, at sports or other after school activities. Because an invalidating environment can be found in many settings, this post is written for various people in the child or teen’s life including: parents, teachers, teacher aides, youth pastors, family members, and coaches.
Following are a few examples of invalidating statements (these are the comments we do not want to say to our kids and teens):
“You’re being ridiculous; there’s no reason to be nervous/angry/scared/sad.”
“She/He is sooo sensitive.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re crying/getting mad/refusing to talk again?!”
“Why would you say that? That’s just stupid.”
“Will you just stop?!”
“Just get over it.”
Other invalidating reactions to the child or teen are: eye roll, sigh, sneer, mock or imitate the child or teen.
Do you notice yourself in any of these statements or behaviors? Most of us can admit we have felt or acted this way on occasion, and at the same time: How do we change our home, our environment, our relationship to become a calm and validating one?
Raising an emotionally sensitive child or teen is challenging and the more you understand their needs, the more you can help them grow to be an emotionally balanced, well-functioning young adult. Because, after all, our goal is to raise them to become happy and healthy adults.
As we progress in today’s post we will focus on the question How can I create a space of calm and validation with my child or teen? Admittedly, the process begins with us. Once we are validating and calm, then the child has the space to become effective at regulating their own emotion.
Let’s look at several strategies for parents and caregivers to learn and practice:
1. Notice when you are in a challenging situation that may lead to emotion dysregulation or upset. At these times, be mindful, take a breath or pause, and pay attention to yourself. When you are being mindful, it helps you shift from reacting to responding. What are the clues that you are in a challenging place with the child or teen? Sometimes it’s helpful to identify your clues by looking at your feelings, thoughts, and body sensations; let’s look closely at each.
Name your Feelings: (For example, frustrated, sad, or nervous)
Thoughts: (Some possible thoughts may be, “I really don’t want to deal with this today” or “I can’t deal with this child’s sadness/acting out/refusal to cooperate.”)
Body sensations: (Examples: tense in your shoulders, butterflies in your stomach, clenched jaw.)
Now, it’s your turn to practice, reflect on a recent situation and identify your feelings, thoughts, and body sensations.
Name the Situation:
2. Calm yourself with breathing. There are many ways to practice mindful breathing, and any can be an effective way to calm. One example of mindful breathing is square breathing (#6 on the “Mindfulness for Kids” list). Pay attention to your breath, the inhale and the exhale. You could also pay attention to how the breath feels in your body, the rise and fall of your chest or stomach. Find more DBT handouts and worksheets in my new book, DBT Therapeutic Activity Ideas for Working with Teens, on Amazon.
3. Self- validate. Consider validating yourself the same way you would a close friend. Raising an emotionally sensitive child or teen is hard work! To practice self-validation, eliminate judgmental self-statements about yourself, remind yourself that you are doing your best, and be compassionate toward yourself. Use sentence starters with yourself much as you would with another person, “It makes sense (that I’m feeling). . . “ and “It’s okay (that I’m feeling) . . . “
4. Be effective. Being effective means “doing what needs to be done” to maintain or reach the goals you have with your child or teen. Name your goals and keep them in mind during difficult episodes. Examples of goals may be: having a well functioning or cooperative relationship, being emotionally supportive to my child/teen, and understanding my child or teen and his or her point of view.
Carol Lozier is a therapist, author, and blogger specializing in trauma; and adoptive and foster kids, teens, and adults. Ms. Lozier is in private practice in Louisville, KY.