It took five years, but I finally figured out how to follow the therapist’s advice. In this Essay from Real Life, a mom shares her struggles with managing her anxiety while trying to support her son on his mental health journey. Through a series of trials and errors, can she learn the true value of validation?
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It took five years, but I finally figured out how to follow the therapist’s advice.
As a mother with anxiety raising a child with anxiety, I constantly struggle with how to manage his desires. Early on, his disappointments and heartaches only made my anxiety worse, and I believed if I could keep his anxiety from boiling over, all would be well. It turns out, that’s not the ideal approach to raising a kid who can cope with both life’s ups and downs.
Thanks to an amazing family therapist, I started to sort through all of this with what seemed like a big dilemma at the time. When my son was 8 years old, he desperately wanted to make money. Believing it was my job to figure out how to grant his every wish, I went straight to the therapist, and asked, “How can an 8-year-old boy make money?”
Rather than laugh at my question, she asked me why he wants to make money. Would it really make a difference in his life? Would it really make him happier? She encouraged me to have the same conversation with him and acknowledge how hard it is to be eight years old and not have any buying power. I can’t remember now what happened next. He probably stopped asking and moved onto the next obsession. What I do remember is the relief I felt when she let me off the hook. I realized it is NOT my job to grant his every wish. However, it is my job to validate his feelings.
I’ve heard that message many times over the years. “Validate your child’s feelings,” the experts say. “Mirror back to them what they are experiencing to let them know you are listening,” we are told.
When my kids moaned about whatever was troubling them, I’d try to validate, “Yes, that’s hard.” “I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with that.” “That situation sounds frustrating.”
I never really saw how the validation had an impact until recently. Last fall, five years after the fixation on finding a way to strike it rich, my now 13-year-old son came to me on a school night. “I want to play a game with my friends tonight, but one of the guys isn’t available until nine o’clock,” he said. “Can I stay up late tonight and play?” he asked with hope in his eyes. In our house, we try to enforce a screens-off-at-9:30-on-school-nights rule.
How to respond? I knew I’d get nowhere with him by just saying, “No way.” Instead, I pulled out my validation wand, started waving it above our heads, and said, “Wow, that sounds really fun. You must be really excited about playing this game with your friends, but it’s a school night, and you know how hard it is to get up in the morning as it is. I wish you could stay up late to play that game, but you know it’s not a good idea.” Then I stopped talking, and much to my surprise, he backed down. An hour later, he told me the group had set up a time to play in the middle of the day on the upcoming Saturday.
I did a happy little jig, gave myself a high-five, and thought, I’ve come a long way since the money-making days. I’m not sharing all of this to suggest I’ve got it all figured out. In fact, two days later, I fell flat on my parenting face while trying to establish a new nighttime phone routine. You win some, you lose some.
I’m telling this story in hopes it relieves another parent from trying to come to their child’s rescue with the reminder that it’s not our job to solve their problems. It’s our responsibility to help them figure out how to manage the challenges themselves.
And to all the therapists out there who talk about validation, keep up the conversation. Someday it will sink in and make a difference. I know it’s hard to have to repeat yourself so many times when it seems like no one is listening. (How’s that for validation?!)