“I get it, I get you” How to practice validating your struggling teenager

by Thanos Nioplias, LMHC

It has been a common observation among parents, teachers and counselors that our teenagers’ mental health has been suffering over the past two years. A combination of the isolation the pandemic brought, constant exposure to electronics and social media, and re-entering a post-pandemic social world have all created high levels of anxiety and distress in many of our teens.

While there are many tips and interventions that parents and educators can use to help their teenagers, every one of these interventions is doomed to fail unless based on a foundation of acceptance and validation. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, known as DBT, is a type of therapy that was developed to provide life skills to adults and teens that experience intense negative moods, impulsivity, self-harm and suicidality. Dialectical thinking teaches us that acceptance and change not only are not contradictory but equally essential in navigating life’s pain.

In simpler words DBT tells us:
we cannot change our current situation unless we wholeheartedly accept it;
we cannot expect our teenager to do better unless we validate their pain;
we cannot offer a solution unless we are willing to sit with the problem for a moment.

In my experience as a therapist, I am always amazed at how willing teenagers are to do better, once they feel truly understood and validated. It is through this experience that I am sharing a few suggestions for parents, caregivers and educators on validating and meeting their teens where they are:

1) Slow down! Don’t be too quick to ask your teen to change or to make demands that may not seem attainable at the moment. Simply listening to your teenager’s problems is an important stage in the process of improving their mental health.

2) Listen actively and pay attention to what is said and not said. This means nodding, keeping a relaxed and welcoming body posture, and avoiding judgmental language or a harsh tone of voice. Remember that there is always something to reflect even in the quietest moments. A simple reply like “it seems that this is too hard to talk about” or “I bet opening up is scary” can go a long way and can give your teen a genuine permission to open up.

3) To validate means to show your teenager that the way they feel and the way they see the world is valid and makes sense, even though you may not agree with it. Use statements like “This makes so much sense to me”, “I would feel the same way if I were in your situation”, or “I get it…I get you”

4) Challenge yourself to refrain from offering advice and solutions immediately after a problem is discussed. Avoid statements like “Yes I see your point, but…” Don’t one-up your kid by telling them what you did as a teenager or what you would do in their situation.

5) As a parent, acknowledge that validating is very hard. Most of us did not feel validated and understood as kids, so practicing validation may feel unnatural, uncomfortable and insufficient. Remind yourself that this is not true.

While validating is one of the most challenging communication skills to develop, it can make a huge difference in building a close and supportive relationship with your teenager.

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