A child’s ability to form healthy self-validation is a vital goal of child development. Let’s discuss what it looks like for “Sarah”, a preschooler I worked with, but first let’s explore how important self-validation is.
To use the word validate in the context of relationships, I’m referring to the process by which a person values that which she knows and feels is true and right for her, and then acts in accordance with her inner knowing in support of her own self, and her own needs.
As we raise our children to be intimate with what they feel, sense and know, and to honor and support themselves in their knowing, we are providing them with this fundamentally valuable tool for successfully navigating their internal and external experiences throughout their life. This is the foundation for a child’s capacity to acquire the more complex self-regulation skills she needs to actualize her potential. It’s the very important task we have of validating her unconditional goodness, and what she feels, thinks, desires, knows – which tells her she is ‘right’ in the world, that her experiences are important, her dreams are valuable.
It’s we who largely determine how a child comes to validate herself.
Let’s keep this in mind as we look at “Sarah”, a child who’s learning how to do this, first without, then with our keen attention and help: “Sarah” is four years old, joyful, full of life, and wicked smart.
I was called in to observe Sarah and consult with her preschool teachers and parents due to her “impulsive, inattentive, non-compliant, emotional, potentially dangerous” behaviors of refusing to sit in circle time, and of constantly banging into objects: outside with her tricycle, and inside – running into, and purposefully and playfully trying to topple both other children and adults. She becomes irritable and angry, displaying explosive behaviors when caregivers attempt to redirect her and minimize her complaints.
Sarah had a typical complaint of wanting to do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. She argued that she could in fact listen while doing other things during circle time; however, the teachers wanted all the kids sitting ‘criss-cross apple sauce’ on the floor, eyes on them, like little soldiers. Because of her complaints, fidgeting, and refusal to cooperate, Sarah was made to sit in a chair at a table removed from the group and to color while the rest of the class conducted their weather discussions, reviewed the alphabet and the letter of the day and other items. Despite the fact that this decision to exclude Sarah from circle time wrongly shamed her, one of the teachers had the compassion and insight to see that this form of physical structure (sitting on the chair at the table), and the activity to calm her mind and busy her hands (coloring), in fact enabled Sarah to participate fully in their discussions and add to it with more intelligent, creative contributions than most of the other students.
It took some prompting in this pretty rigid classroom, but the staff did learn to tweak their expectations and appropriately loosen their “requirements” of the children, who were finally given the choice to sit for circle time or not. Sarah was no longer shamed for being different and she experienced validation from her teachers that her way of participating in circle time was best for her.
Her teachers’ validation of her translated into her own self-validation for speaking up about what she knew to be true for herself.
In the play yard, we reviewed Sarah’s sensory needs that were mistakenly seen as aggressive in intention: the plowing into objects and people suggested that she was seeking physical gross-motor input – not at all the aggression the staff thought it was. One clue was that she displayed no anger at these times but seemed to have a lot of fun doing the plowing; it served her. In addition to creating safe places for Sarah to get this physical input – like jumping onto heavy mats from a not-too-high step during scheduled and play intervals throughout the day, we got her mom’s written permission to give Sarah frequent deep pressure hugs and squeezes as a preventative measure to the more impulsive “plowing” behaviors. I also made a referral for a physical therapy consult. We asked Sarah to let us know when she was feeling ‘out of sorts’ and to seek the big bear hugs that immediately calmed her – as soon as her body “began to tell her” that she needed them.
Her caregivers at school and home began listening to her more, began ‘seeing’ her more clearly as a child who needed their support to speak up about her experiences and needs. I also recommended a nutritional consult, and as a treatment team we began incorporating the foods into her diet (and eliminating others) that would prove to balance her nervous system somewhat so that some of the impulsivity diminished. Additionally, we built in the time, place and space for her to enjoy more creative, stimulating activities to express herself, learn, and to teach us about herself – how she thinks, feels, senses and relates to herself, others, and the world.
What worked for Sarah is that we were able to see her through various lenses of her holistic health and well-being. By using protocols within the sensory, biology/physical expression, creative self-expression, nutrition, and attachment/relationship lenses, we successfully learned to honor what Sarah knew to be true for herself, and we provided her with more knowledge and supports she needed to further know and support herself.
Sarah learned how to validate herself by internalizing two concepts: One, that “I am someone who needs, seeks, and gets big hugs and squeezes, special play activities, and the best foods, to make me feel calm, balanced, and safe.” She knows that this is the ‘right thing’ for her. And because Sarah taught her caregivers that they need to listen to her and to fully see her and learn from her (our lesson!) – Sarah was able to internalize – Two: an aspect of her identity as a person of value in the world. As in: “I am valued. What I think, feel, want, experience, and express matters to others. I am worthy of being heard and seen and respected.”
She needed us to validate her, so that she could further validate her own self, and know that she is doing the “right things” to keep herself in balance, and feeling safe. Without these checks and balances, children can and do fall through the cracks.
Think about this: If we had continued to ignore what Sarah was telling us, she may likely have developed increased shame, anger, rebellion, and over time, an attitude of “Forget you, you’re not listening to me; I’ll do what I want and feel good about it.” She might someday come to validate herself in other ways that create rage, division, resentment, and she very well could tie in with peers who not only validate these emotions, but worse – use them to fuel deeper discord, judgment, intolerance, hatred, retaliation, and violence.
To some, Sarah’s classroom experiences may seem small. It may seem like the negative outcomes I postulated are a stretch to what actually happened in the classroom. I am telling you: This is so not a stretch. This is how it begins: we do not see our children, we do not listen to our children. We try to put them under our thumb.
In another scenario Sarah may have other tendencies or supports to provide resilience for her psyche to not go down a path of anger and aggression. Perhaps instead she withdraws, becoming depressed and later numbing out with drugs, food, and dysfunctional relationships. Are those fates any less happy for her? With another who validates her anger and aggression, at least she feels like she’s accepted and belongs somewhere. In all cases, she’s only, simply seeking to keep herself safe. Feeling balanced on the inside by people and circumstances who support her and provide balance ‘on the outside’ do this. We do this. Her emotional safety, her happiness and her success depend on us. The level of peace in the world depends on us.
I’ve seen the outcomes of ignoring kids’ true needs before, and so have you – in the variations of the same story that we hear about in the media so often we are becoming numb to them. Do you see that this is an epidemic? Do you see that we can stop this violence and all that goes with it in our children if we pay more attention to how we see them, and relate to them? It is a simple concept, though a complex process that requires work and perhaps new paradigms for teaching teachers, supporting parents, and addressing mental health.
We’ve got to fully wake up and act on how this dynamic works for the sake of helping our children grow up happily, confidently and peacefully. We have no one to blame if we do not target this now.
You can substitute just about any example here. (Try it using the “Holistic Wheel of Perception” you can get by subscribing to posts via the home page.) The experiences and lessons will likely be the same: We want our child to know what it is that she knows, honor what it is that she knows, and, if she’s old enough- to seek the supporting knowledge to inform her decisions further (otherwise, we can do that for her). The thing is, we have to really see her, and listen to her. We have to stop trying to make her fit into our old ideal of how she “should” behave, act, be. We need to meet her ‘where she’s at’ and start there.
Our goal is that we use and teach children skills sets containing ‘ways of thinking and doing’ to support them in being themselves throughout the trajectory of their lives.
Please let me know your thoughts, so I can best help you help your child.