A lot of people can be concerned about the word ‘validation’, perceiving that by doing this, we are giving in, or enabling someone. However, validation is a vital part of our connections with children, building trust and supporting mental health. Without it, we are often caught in cycle of resistance, by which the child may comment that they feel unsupported or that noone cares.
Validation = acknowldgeing another person’s emotions, thoughts, experiences and beliefs
Mental health can feel incredibly lonely and scary. A child’s brain does not become fully developed until 25 years old, and for their fundamental years their behaviours and feelings are emotionally led, coming from the limbic brain. Our brains have three levels that we need to be aware of when working with children:
- The Reptilian Brain – Which asks ‘Am I safe? Am I happy;
- The Limbic Brain – Our feelings
- The Prefrontal Cortex – Logic, Reasoning and Problem Solving
Whilst our brains reach growth levels at around 11 years old for girls and 14 years old for boys, their development and neural pathways development continues long into their 20s. Whilst research indicates that the prefrontal cortex begins growth and connections between 12 and 25 years, it is beginning to look like this may be 27 or 28 years old from current research studies.
Therefore, children are susceptible to emotion driven behaviours, which we can frequently review as ‘poor behaviour’ or ‘naughtiness’ or ‘defiance’ – BUT – if we look at this more deeply, we can recognise that when their amygdala fires (fight/flight/freeze) and the brain asks ‘Am I safe? Am I happy’ and the answer is ‘no’ the limbic brain reacts accordingly.
So, what does this look like?
Simply, this can look like being reactive. This can look like a child who struggles with maths, starting an argument to get out of class (to become safe). This can look like a child who struggles with crowds refusing to attend school (to become safe). This can look like a child who cannot express their needs hiding in the school toilets (to become safe).
Frequently, after 24 years working with children and young people, including 10 years in therapy and mental health coaching, there are three courts.
- Those who recognise that safety and familiarity are core to mental health
- Those who know that there is ‘more’ to what they are seeing but are not sure what to do
- Those who believe that threats, coercion and bribery will create desirable actions
I appreciate that we are entering a new world, where mental health is a protected need, and needs to be accommodated. However, my heart breaks on a daily basis for those children who have been subjected to group 3, and the issues are escalating – so the reactions escalate, and before long children are falling off the radar. Particularly where school attendance, related to anxiety or emotionally based school avoidance are involved.
So, what do we need to do?
Instead, we need to be considering how we activate that amygdala to believe ‘I am safe, I am happy’.
Which starts with validation. It is the difference between:
“School is important and if you are not here you will fail your GCSEs and your parents will be taken to court, do you understand how serious this is?”
“It sounds to me as though, right now school is overwhelming. You’ve said that coming in in the mornings makes you feel really anxious, even though you want to be here. How would you feel if we looked at a plan together, where we can find ways to help you access school again but also to rebuild your confidence?”
Validation is NOT giving in. It IS about treating children and young people with compassion, so that we work as a team. When we validate, we teach a child that they are HEARD – SEEN – UNDERSTOOD. When this is done consistently, children’s amygdala stops activating so quickly and they are able to regulate more quickly. Without this, we have often lost the battle before it even started. Children lose faith, feel lost and will shut down often with their anxiety escalating fast!
Validation can look like:
“I can see this makes you really uncomfortable”
“It’s really challenging to balance finding safe spaces and to attend school, isn’t it?”
“I’m here for you, how can I support you?”
“Your feelings make sense; can I ask how X affects you?”
“Can you help me to understand how this impacts you?”
We all appreciate that there are rules and protocols to follow. However, if we want to teach children how to develop resilience, we also need to consider the lessons we role model, the listening skills that we utilise and the knowledge that we need to be more compassionate. Often, after all the years of working within systems, we instead see adults whose egos become lost in the process, who believe that their authority will instigate the changes that we need.
Take a moment to consider, that in a country that has an obesity crisis – why don’t people respond when a doctor says ‘you must lose weight?’. Why don’t adults listen when their families beg them to quit smoking or drinking? Why don’t people stop committing adultery when people point out all the consequences? Simply, we very rarely follow a dictation – we rarely listen when we are threatened – and we rarely respond to bribes. There is no differentiation between children and adults in this – when we are TOLD our brain says NO ‘you’re not the boss of me’.
Instead, we need to tackle mental health through compassion, consideration and collaboration. When you teach a child that they are heard and validated, and take the time to understand, they are able to access the resources to make those first steps. This does not mean making a plan and telling them – it means finding out what is possible and starting at the bottom rung of the ladder.
Leaving our agendas and egos at the door.
Want to learn more?
Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support. You can join our Level 4 training (here).
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