Healthy Parent-Child Relationships:

Creating Safety with Validation & Empathy

The bond between parent and child can be one of the strongest of any human relationship.  The parents I know desire to have a healthy, trust relationship with their children. After all, every good relationship is built on a foundation of trust.  The more we trust someone the safer we feel with them. We believe they will be there for us in a time of need and we can depend on them.  Sometimes, however, the parent-child relationship is less than ideal.  

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Let’s look at a brief and common example of how a parent-child relationship safety might begin to break down due to a lack of validation and empathy. 

Example 1: “I’m scared,” says 4-year-old Caleb at 2:00am as he pushes open the door to his parents’ room. 

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Dad assures. “Go back to bed.”  Little Caleb, frightened and sleepy, shuffles himself back to his room. A few minutes later, he’s back at the foot of his parents’ bed.  “Caleb,” Dad says sternly, “I told you to go to bed. There is nothing to be afraid of. Now, get in your bed and stay there.”  “Yes, honey.” Mom agrees. “Off to bed, you’ll be fine.” Again, Caleb makes his way slowly to his room. Unable to feel safe, Caleb returns to his parent’s room a third time. “I’m scared, I hear something,” Caleb whispers.  “Alright Mister! That’s enough!” Dad exclaims. “You get back in your bed and stay there or I’ll give you something to be afraid of!” Caleb, frightened of his room, and of his parents, goes back to bed in obedience and eventually falls asleep. 

Now let’s look at this parent-child experience a bit differently.

Example 2: “I’m scared,” says 4-year-old Caleb at 2:00am as he pushes open the door to his parents’ room. 

“You are?” says Dad, yawning and trying to become coherent. “What are you afraid of?” 

“I hear something.” Caleb says.  “You do?” Dad questions as he slides out of bed. “Let’s go see what it is.” Dad says confidently as he takes Caleb’s hand and heads to his room.  Dad checks under the bed and in the closet.  “Nothing there,” he says reassuringly to his son.  Then Dad turns to the window. “I think I found what you’re hearing, Caleb. Do you see the tree branch here?  It is tapping your window.  Is that what you heard?”  Caleb nods.  Dad picks up his son, “Yeah, I bet that was scary to hear that and not know what it was. You ok now?”  Caleb hugs dad and nods a few times into his neck. “Alright, buddy. Are you ready to get back in to bed?”  Caleb agrees. Dad tucks him in, “Sleep well, son.” 

Creating Safety with Validation and Empathy

In parents’ attempts to move the child away from fear and to build resilience, parents may inadvertently dismiss a child’s fear, pain, and emotions with statements like “You’re fine.” Or “It’s not that bad.”  To a child, a tween, or young adult with only a few years of life experience to draw from, these statements can leave them feeling alone, confused, and wrong. To the child, their experience is not fine, and it is bad.  While a parent knows, as in the first example, that there is nothing to be afraid of, the child has not yet learned this. 

The parents in the second example validate the child’s fear instead of dismissing it. Notice, the child’s fears are not escalated by the validation and empathy, they are lessened.  Additionally, Dad empathizes with his son (“I bet that was scary…”)  and demonstrates understanding as opposed to Dad in Example 1 who scolds and becomes critical of his son.  The little boy is no longer alone with his fear, his father is with him.

This brief but powerful exchange between parent and child demonstrates how trust can either be strengthened or eroded. In Example 1, trust is eroded. Caleb likely feels misunderstood. He also may begin to learn that it is not okay, and not safe, to tell Dad and Mom that he is scared because they will become angry with him and reject him. And that is worse than whatever sound he hears.  Caleb begins learning to hide his fear, to suppress it.  At a very young age, he learns to shift himself – to become a more acceptable Caleb for his parents, a Caleb that does not make them angry. He begins to no longer be authentic Caleb, but a more “likeable” child.  Ultimately, Caleb has learned that he cannot trust his parents with his fear, but that he must deal with it – alone. 

In Example 2, trust is strengthened through further validation and empathy.  Dad offers Caleb a safe, welcoming, and confident space for Caleb’s fear. Dad extends curiosity to his son and believes that he is, in fact, afraid. Dad joins with his son when he is afraid and comforts him by extending his hand in a reassuring gesture. Caleb begins to learn, in this example, that Dad is okay- safe – even when he is scared. He can rely on Dad and trust that Dad will be there for him. From this experience, Caleb can continue being authentic with his parents because he is confident they will accept him. 

Parenting is no easy task.  Future articles will look deeper into parent-child relationships and explore other components that strengthen healthy connection including compassion, prosody or tone of voice, and unconditional love versus behavior-based acceptance.  I’ll also review how parents can move back into connection with their child when a relationship has broken down and repair relationship ruptures along the parenting journey.  If you need support during this season of life, we encourage you to reach out to any of our counselors who would be glad to come alongside you and help navigate the challenging child-rearing years. 

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