Validating Children’s Big Feelings Builds Emotional Wellbeing

Big feelings are an unavoidable part of life. We all have them.  And how we learn to engage with our emotions in childhood has a profound impact on how we experience them as adults. If certain emotions are perceived as bad, shameful, or not allowed, we can learn to hide or even fail to feel them, which can have negative consequences for our mental as well as our physical health. On the other hand, learning to feel and express our full range of emotions in helpful ways paves the way for resiliency in adulthood.

Imagine that you’re at the park with your five-year-old and it’s time to pick up his sister. You’ve given him a 10 and a 5-minute warning and he’s had his chance to do his one last thing. And now it’s time to go. What ensues is a raging fury of flailing and wailing that has the whole playground looking in your direction (at least, that’s how it feels).  It might seem reasonable to remind him that you gave him a heads up and he knew it was time to go, or to try to get him to stop crying by distracting him or telling him to be quiet. Or a line that I’ve found myself saying on occasion, “if it’s too hard to leave the park when it’s time to pick up your sister, we won’t be able to come the next time”.

What’s happening here is not your child’s attempt to get you to change your mind or to embarrass you in front of the whole neighborhood. They are just having a really strong feeling and do not know how to handle it.

The ways in which we as parents and teachers handle these types of situations has a big impact on how our developing youngsters learn to engage with their emotions. Letting them know that we understand how they are feeling and that their emotions are ok has a number of important benefits including strengthening your relationship, developing emotional intelligence, learning to handle big emotions, and building resilience. All of these are protective factors for emotional wellbeing and positive long-term outcomes. And in the short term, validating feelings can also ease conflict and shorten tantrums.

So, when your child is having an outburst, whatever the reason, consider validating their big feelings. When we validate feelings, we give the other person our full attention, and let them know that we are listening and that we care.

Validating phrases include:

  • I can see that you are very (sad, angry, upset, scared, etc.)
  • Reflecting back what your child is saying
    • You are really disappointed about (leaving the park, not having french fries for dinner, losing your favorite airplane, etc.)
  • How frustrating!
  • It’s OK to feel this way.
  • That must be really hard.
  • It makes a lot of sense that you’re feeling upset.
  • Anyone in your situation would feel that way.

Avoid invalidating statements:

  • Making it about you, “How do you think that makes me feel?”
  • Telling them how they should feel, “You should feel lucky that we got to come to the park at all!”.
  • Trying to solve the problem
  • Encouraging the child before they have had a chance to process their big emotion
  • Judgmental comments, “It was wrong of you to….”
  • Character statements, “You’re too (sensitive, dramatic, etc.)”

A helpful practice is naming the emotion your child is feeling and connecting it to the reason they are upset, then asking if they agree. For example, “You’re really mad that Lindsay took the jump rope you were using. Is that correct?” The number one guideline is to accept all feelings, without trying to change anything. Remember that validating all feelings does not mean accepting all behaviors. It also does not mean giving in to what the child wants.

And though we’ve been focused on validating feelings in the context of a tantrum or outburst, validating feelings is a helpful practice to use in all of our interactions with children and adults alike. Learning to accept and express feelings is a powerful step on the road to emotional intelligence and resilience.

Image: © Pogonici |


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