I am sharing a picture of myself from not so long ago when I'd unwind by getting my hair done at the salon (Thanks again Alketa Hawes and the rest of the staff at Mane Escape! Miss you!). This photo was taken before COVID-19 took hold of Massachusetts and just before people began physically distancing here in my community. This was taken before a huge portion of parents were spending long days alone with their children at home. And, even then, I was expressing concern about our society’s seemingly limited understanding of child development and of the lack of developmentally-friendly communication skills being used with children and teens. And now, more than ever, I believe that adults need to get back to basics and re-learn three fundamental skills when interacting with children and teens. These skills are:
1. To paraphrase overtures.
2. To praise / acknowledge efforts.
3. To validate emotions.
I’d like to discuss the importance of each of these developmentally friendly communication skills, and share some of my experiences learning and teaching these skills. I often share these reflections with colleagues and clients, and it seems that this is a time when the broader population may benefit from hearing this perspective.
Paraphrasing is one of those simple critical skills a psychotherapist learns to practice early in their training and education. It falls under active listening. It’s also one of the most central skills a developmental expert learns in the context of play therapy and parent-child interaction therapy. Additionally paraphrasing is found in most couples counseling manuals. Before my husband and I got married, I enrolled us in a couples counseling program at UCLA (Go Bruins!). Based on years of being contently married (20 yrs.), it seemed that the couples counseling program was effective. Paraphrasing was the first skill that we learned. And, anyone in organizational psychology knows that paraphrasing is in the active listening activities that one would be taught in an organizational context. Adults working in high stakes teams such as hospital teams and military teams learn to paraphrase in a timely manner. For communication purposes, paraphrasing is an important ingredient in confirming that the listener heard what the speaker had to say.
Having paraphrased communications by children and teens for thousands of hours, and having trained parents to engage the skills for countless hours, it seems evident to me that children want to be heard and that adults struggle mightily to slow down and listen to what they have to say.
Paraphrasing is such a simple skill. Yet, I’m stunned at the degree to which parents and educators struggle to simply paraphrase what a child or teen says. Especially when a child or teen has something painful or unpopular to say, it seems that adults cannot tolerate just hearing it and reflecting it back accurately. Sometimes adults argue it is redundant to paraphrase. And sometimes parents and teachers worry that paraphrasing signals an endorsement of what the child or teen says. Whatever the reasons, when I first ask a parent to paraphrase in a role-play, typically what comes out is far from paraphrasing.
Parents and educators, even counselors for that matter, rather than paraphrase, tend to pose questions, seek insight, and infer. What I typically get from them is projection. Sometimes I wonder when we stopped being with children in a mindful and reflective way and began turning parents and educators into pseudo psychoanalysts whose job it is to understand the source of the child’s words. When did it stop being enough to reflectively be with a child? Everywhere I turn there’s an armchair therapist waiting to get to the inner workings of the child’s expressions. Most of my work with parents and with educators is to get them to refrain from all of the analysis and coaching that they are attempting.
Sometimes I think parents and educators seek insight because Freudian psychoanalysis made its way into mainstream culture and cannot seem to find its way out (I imagine even the psychoanalysts among us would not want such processes playing out in peoples living rooms). Sometimes I think parents and teachers feel intellectually bored with young minds and are simply entertaining themselves cognitively with all of their musings. Sometimes I think the culture has just become incredibly neurotic (as I feel trying to understand why parents and educators struggle to paraphrase). But it doesn’t matter, really, why parents and teachers do the things they do. In my view, they just need to stop all of the interpretations of the child and simply learn to listen to the child and reflect.
Just hear the child. Just hear what the child or teen says, and concretely reflect it back. Don’t add to the demands. Don’t psychoanalyze. Simply reflect back what they’re saying.
What happens when parents do this? What happens when educators do this? Just by engaging this skill, I see kids’ moods lift. I see kids warm up to adults. Unfortunately, those who research parent-child interactions have failed to study the effect of paraphrasing specifically on the child’s mood. Ironically, they’ve looked more at its effect on conduct and behavior, and there, we see a positive effect. And we do also think paraphrasing increases interpersonal bonds. I expect if and when the relationship between adult paraphrasing and child mood is studied, we will discover that there is a positive shift in the moods of kids whose parents and teachers learn to paraphrase.
Praise is feedback. Praise let’s a person know that what they are doing is pleasing to others. Without it, a person may be lost in a sea of disconnection and isolation, and wonder if her contribution is of value to others.
Praise offers live guidance. It is much easier to find our way when we try something and get immediate feedback or guidance. From a task as simple as building an IKEA table to as complex as teaching a class of students, we may all benefit from experience and practice with immediate feedback. Praise is a form of immediate feedback.
Imagine this, in the classroom, a child shares about his dog and peers smile. A child may answer a question in class correctly and a teacher may enthusiastically reply, “yes!” These subtle acknowledgements emotionally connect, and subtly direct, children in the classroom. Praise takes this sort of feedback just a bit further. It is more specific. Rather than, “yes” the teacher might say, “I love the detail you provided just now in your answer.”
Praise as positive feedback is used across settings. Praise tends to be used in the context of psychotherapeutic relationships. Praise is used in coaching relationships, as well. Praise is used in corporate teams.Praise is used in marketing endeavors.
Being ignored in a group is a great way to understand what it is like to have a dearth of praise in one’s life. Being neglected and unappreciated is a lonely place.
Due to a combination of oppression and gender socialization, young females differentially use praise and ignoring to uplift some peers and, conversely, to harm other peers. In this tactic called “relational aggression,” they will praise someone who they want to embolden, while overtly ignoring someone who they want to harm.
Whereas being ignored shuts people down, praise, a form of feedback or positive reinforcement, pulls us towards relationship. It lifts us up. People are often motivated to stay in places and remain in connection with others in spaces where they tend to be praised, acknowledged, and uplifted. And, getting praise has the power to enhance self efficacy, a sense of being capable of affecting things in a social setting.
When I encourage parents to praise their children, I get a number of different responses. Many parents only need a reminder to praise and some practice with praising more often. However, some parents feel so infuriated with their child that the only kind of praise they can imagine giving their child would be disingenuous praise. They ask, “so you want me to kiss up to my child?” I’ve met some parents and teachers who seem so hardened and burned out that the idea of engaging soft skills like praise seems like “pussy footing.” In such situations, the idea of acknowledging the child and giving positive feedback seems initially like too much to give. It’s like they’re too stuck in battle with their child, and they can’t imagine letting down their own guard.
Conversely, some parents fear that the use of praise is too controlling or too manipulative. They worry that they are belittling their child by engaging praise. They believe their child is higher minded than someone who would need praise and acknowledgment to get through particular tasks. Sometimes these parents report that they, themselves would feel belittled by praise. And, they prefer longer conversations and negotiations and problem-solving endeavors. It is my perspective that they see their child as a small adult rather than a young, developing person.
It’s not uncommon for parents to praise their child on one hand and then, in the next breath, to comment about the child’s past failures or mistakes. For such parents, it may be difficult to be in the moment and express some acknowledgment and gratitude for that particular moment in time with the child or teen.
What I observe is that parents are surprised with the results when they take a leap of faith and learn to engage specific praise. I believe we see these results because kids need more direction and connection than we realize. They aren’t fully forms adults, they are kids, after all, and they require our guidance, support, and nurturance.
To emotionally validate a child or teen is to communicate that their emotions are human and natural in the context of their experience. When a child or teen is emotionally validated, they are more likely to experience acceptance of their own emotions. Acceptance of emotions allows one to move through emotions and function more adaptively. Conversely, invalidation, or parental rejection of a child or teen’s emotions tends to result in 1. less internal acceptance of emotions by the child or teen; 2. aggression towards parents who invalidate; or 3. both. So there is risk for invalidation to cause a child or teen to become more brittle in the context of internal experiences associated with emotions, and also to become less adaptive and related within their home environment.
Often people have the perspective that validation is agreement or sharing similar experiences or simply sympathizing with a child or teen. Often when people hear that it’s important to validate their child, they think it’s important to simply say back to their child, “I can understand how that would be hard for you.“ But in psychology, the skills of validation is different than that. Done well, emotional validation leaves a child feeling as though their emotions are natural and human, and also that the emotions make sense in the context in which the child or teen is situated.
I’ve noticed that people who struggle with mood dysregulation often endorse histories where they were not emotionally validated enough in their childhood.
Additionally, research shows that people with even mild degrees of mood dysregulation tend to respond with aggression when faced with invalidation. Whereas validation is associated with mental wellness, invalidation is associated with mood dysregulation and aggression.
Validation is one of the primary skills taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT®) , which is an intervention specifically geared towards people with interpersonal challenges in the context of severe mood dysregulation.
If a child with mood dysregulation is placed in a setting such as McLean Hospital, a Harvard affiliated psychiatric hospital, the child and the family will be taught the skill of emotional validation. It is thought to be the most potent and therapeutic skill that one can teach.
It’s tough to validate another person when their experience is so far from our own experience. I also notice that it is difficult for parents to validate kids when the parent feels guilty or overwhelmed by the child or teen’s emotions. It seems as though those parents feeling overwhelmed and struggle themselves to work through their own emotions, and therefore struggle to accept their child’s emotions.
Given the blocks and barriers to emotional validation by parents, it can be helpful to take a more formulaic approach to the skill of validation. Adherence to the components in the skill of validation may ensure an increased likelihood that the child or teen may experience the benefit of validation.
Sometimes teens are particularly sensitive to emotions or “affect phobic” and can’t seem to tolerate validation, even validation done well. Perhaps this is because it accentuates their emotion, and they happen to be fearful of their own emotions. In such situations, I encourage parents to practice validation of each other’s emotions in the home. So, in this way, parents are modeling validation, labeling emotions, and priming skills that eventually the teen should learn.
Agguire, B. Having A Life Worth Living - Dr Aguirre's Insights on Borderline Personality Disorder://youtu.be/JChwgwU9zIs
Agguire, B. (2018) McLean Hospital Fall Leadership Conference. Adolescent Mental Health: The Role of Validation
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601-607.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575-582.
Baumrind, D. (2013). Authoritative parenting revisited: History and current status. In R. E. Larzelere, A. S. Morris, & A. W. Harrist (Eds.), Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development (pp. 11-34). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Baumrind, D. (1991). Effective parenting during the early adolescent transition. In P. A. Cowan & E. M. Hetherington (Eds.), Advances in family research series. Family transitions (pp. 111-163). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Ehrenreich-May, J., Kennedy, S. M., Sherman, J. A., Bilek, E. L., Buzzella, B. A., Bennett, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2018). Programs that work. Unified protocols for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders in children and adolescents: Therapist guide. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Gurwitch, R. H., Messer, E. P., Masse, J. J., Olafson, E., Boat, B. W., & Putnam, F. W. (2015). Child-Adult Relationship Enhancement (CARE): An evidence-informed program for children with a history of trauma and other behavioral challenges. Child Abuse & Neglect. Online access.
Herr, N. R., Jones, A.C., Cohn, D. M., & Weber, D.M. (2015 ). The Impact of Validation and Invalidation on Aggression in Individuals With Emotion Regulation Difficulties. Personality Disorders, Theory, Research, and Treatment, Vol 6 (310-314)
Kagan, E. R., Frank, H. E., & Kendall, P. C. (2017). Accommodation in youth with OCD and anxiety. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 24(1), 78-98.
Linehan, M.M. (2015) DBT® Skills Training Manual: Second Edition. The Guilford Press, New York, NY.
Masse, J.J., McNeil, C.B., Wagner, S.M., & Chorney, D.B. (2008). Parent-child interaction therapy and high functioning autism: A conceptual overview. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 4, 714-735.
MGH Clay Center. (2014). Sasha’s Story [Video File]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/90135351
Sunrise Residential Treatment Center. (2014, Dec 15). Relational DBT Validation [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HANLHwZ47Hc
Teach Teamwork: An Evidence-Based Self-Guided Program on How to Work Effectively in Teams. This was a joint endeavor by University of Central Florida, The Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, and The Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. Link: www.apa.org/education/k12/teach-teamwork.aspx