Dr. Melissa Stern is a licensed psychologist who has been working with children, adolescents, and young adults, and families for over 10 years. She is a graduate of the McGill School/Applied Child Psychology program where her research focused on adolescents’ and young adults’ emotional regulation and self-harm. She has experience working in various clinical settings such as in private practice, hospital outpatient clinics as well as the McGill University Assessment Clinic.
Notably, Melissa received extensive training in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute’s Child and Adolescent Depressive Disorders Clinic. Furthermore, she is the first DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician™ in Quebec, and she is one of a select number of mental health professionals trained in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy for Children (DBT-C) in Canada. More recently, Melissa started teaching as a Course Instructor in the School/Applied Child Psychology at McGill University.
Let's Talk: Youth Psychology Blog
Every Supersenser Needs a Superparent –
Tips for Validating Your Child’s Emotions
By Melissa Stern, Ph.D. off, PhD
Hosted by SISP student committee, McGill University
& Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology
A child’s emotions can, at times, be disproportionate to the situation. This can ultimately lead their parents to be unsure of how to react and they may even become very frustrated by the situation. In turn, they may unintentionally respond in a harsh or invalidating manner with the following phrases: “Why are you so emotional?”, “You are acting like a baby”, “It’s not a big deal", "Just get over it” or “You are being dramatic”. These reactions leave the child feeling misunderstood and can potentially escalate their emotional experience leading to further frustration and invalidation from the parent. This cycle is known as the transactional model in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (Fruzetti & Chad, 2020).
Certain children are more sensitive, reactive in their emotions, and take a longer time to calm down. This is known as temperament. It is our biological makeup and tends to be stable across the lifespan (Bates, Schermerhorn & Goodnight, 2010). Under the DBT-C model, these children are known as “supersensers”. Our supersenser children require a specific set of parenting methods that fit with their high level of emotional sensitivity. In fact, we call parents who use these sets of skills “superparents”.
See my blog “12 Signs Your Child is a Supersenser” to determine whether a child is a supersenser
Here are some ways that Superparents can validate their Supersenser’s emotions:
1. Actively observing and listening to their child in an unbiased manner (e.g., being present, aware, interested and asking questions, nodding while letting go of preconceived notions or expectations).
2. Reflecting back accurately and non-judgmentally what was heard (e.g., “So you are saying that what they said hurt your feelings. Is that right?”).
3. Communicating the validity of a response with words (e.g., “That makes sense,” “I totally understand,” “Wow, that must have been difficult for you”).
4. Communicating validity of a response with actions (e.g., giving tissues when the person is crying, helping the person with problem-solving when she asks for help).
The use of validation acknowledges that we are neither good nor bad. We just are, and our experiences are justifiable. Using validation will make your child feel heard and understood. It will result in the de-escalation of their emotions and will also make them feel like they can trust their emotions. Validation reduces shame and teaches effective communication of emotions.
Many parents express finding it difficult knowing what to validate, especially when they do not necessarily understand or agree with what their child is feeling or doing. It is important to remember the following. We can validate someone’s emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and physiological responses. Emotions are ALWAYS considered to be valid. On the other hand, someone’s reactions, whether in thoughts or behaviours may or may not necessarily be valid. It depends on the current context. For example, a child’s absence from school is valid when they are physically ill. The absence is not considered to be valid when they prefer to play with their friends. Another challenge that parents may encounter is that they may be too emotionally triggered or dysregulated themselves to be able to validate their children. In these situations, parents may need to regulate their own emotions before trying to validate their child’s emotions. This can be achieved by walking away and calming oneself down by using their own DBT skills. Think of it as putting on your oxygen mask before you would put one on your child in a plane crash.
Bates, J. E., Schermerhorn, A. C., & Goodnight, J. A. (2010). Temperament and personality through the life span. In M. E. Lamb, A. M. Freund, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), The handbook of life-span development, Vol. 2. Social and emotional development (pp. 208–253). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470880166.hlsd002007
Fruzzetti, A. & Shenk, C. (2020). Fostering validating responses in families. In P. Hoffman & P. Steiner-Grossman (Eds.), Borderline Personality Disorder: Meeting the Challenges to Successful Treatment (pp. 215-228). NY: Haworth Press.
Perepletchikova, F. (2018). Dialectical Behavior Therapy for pre-adolescent children. In, M. Swales (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Dialectical Behavior Theory (pp. 691-718). UK: Oxford University Press.