Nurturing Kids' Self-Validation is a Gift of Future Empowerment
Updated: Mar 2
“There’s a lot of talk these days about giving children self-esteem. It’s not something you can give;
it’s something they have to build.” – Randy Pausch
External validation is key to early development & security
From the earliest ages, the act of a parent validating a young child is one of the most powerful tools in the parenting arsenal.
Children learn early when they achieve something to seek recognition and approval from their parents. Young kids rely on this external validation as key to their learning and development.
Therapists and authors, Dr. Karyn Hall and Melissa Cook (The Power of Validation, 2011), maintain that one of the most valuable things a parent can do is validate their child’s thoughts and emotions, without criticism and judgment.
On the parenting frontlines though, that’s easier said than done. But parenting has rarely been confused with easy. Regardless, childhood is a critical time for the individual psyche. We know the power it has to influence future function or dysfunction.
Just like grown-ups, when young children feel heard, accepted and understood as they are, unconditionally, they feel secure, confident and can begin to validate themselves.
This can set them up for a future that’s markedly different from kids that leave childhood with bags packed full of fear of abandonment, poor self-esteem and a need for constant external validation, attention and approval.
Whichever the path, they seem to head in very different directions.
“One of the most priceless gifts you can give your children is your ability to truly see who they are in their essence and allow space for this to thrive.”
– Dr. Shefali Tsabary
Praising and validating are not the same
Hall and Cook (2011) are clear: validation is absolutely different from praising, encouraging or comforting. Where praise connects external recognition as the reward for efforts, validation begins to put the emphasis on the accomplishment or effort itself as the reward.
Plus, it turns out, all that stroking isn’t even helping self-esteem.
Research by Brummelman, et al., (2017), studied school-aged children and found praise associated with either no impact or lower levels of self-esteem in children with low to average levels of self-confidence to start. And praise heaped on kids with existing high self-esteem just served to increase levels of narcissism.
High achievers and external validation
High achievers especially, who are often praised for athletic or academic achievement, can develop a reliance on external sources for validation.
The emphasis on the praise as a motivator for achievement can set kids up for disappointment when life’s inevitable mistakes, challenges and realities of the real world do eventually set in.
Generally, many day-to-day adulthood responsibilities don’t also come with a cheering section. The loss of external validation can result in an identity crisis and inevitably, an undermining of self-worth – despite a list of accomplishments.
“The child, in fact, once he feels sure of himself, will no longer seek the approval of authority after every step.”
– Maria Montessori
The shift to self-validation – or not
At some point during childhood, there’s a necessary shift away from a dependence on parents and others for validation to self-validation and internal conviction.
Learning self-validation lays the groundwork for secure self-esteem, self-respect and the confidence that helps in empowering a life.
Child development expert Denise Durkin sees the role parents play in encouraging internal validation as fundamental in allowing the roots of self-determination to take hold.
“When a child sees herself through the prism of her peer group, the resulting self-image can be distorted.”
— Alexandra Robbins
Social media & the fixation on external validation
Minus the development of internal validation, children can move from a reliance on parents’ approval, to teenagers that instead depend on social media feeds for the same.
According to therapist Brooke Sprowl LCSW, teenagers are especially susceptible to developing a detrimental, often addictive, reliance on social media and its constant, external feedback loop.
She says fragile developing identities can more easily internalize and overemphasize the importance of the feedback and opinions of those around them. Whether it’s a like – or a negative comment – either can be ten feet tall.
Social media’s emphasis is on the numbers. If the point is the more attention the better, teenagers lacking in self-control or life experience, can easily lower the bar on what is posted to attract attention.
Followers, likes, clicks, views can begin to replace true self-confidence. Unfortunately, like a filtered selfie, it’s still not real.
“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed.
And you are beautiful.” - Amy Bloom
Social media hides that annoying imperfect reality
Another insidious force working against self-validation is the flawlessly curated – albeit unreal – social feeds designed to show only the best cropped, edited images of lives, bodies and assumed bank accounts.
No struggle, no effort, no failure, no debt, no ordinary days allowed.
Looks perfect, right? Except that each of us, and life in general isn’t that at all. It’s unfiltered and messy and imperfect and unedited.
Self-acceptance is harder when there’s a growing gap between the perfectly crafted image being projected to the world and real-life. That break can leave some people feeling disappointed and depressed.
“Self-knowledge is the first step to maturity.”
– Jane Austen
Comparison & self-doubt
As young people look to explore themselves and the world around them, comparing themselves to others is a favorite pastime. Comparing themselves to edited, unattainable images of perfection isn’t only irrational and abusive, it’s a losing proposition.
Jonathan Rhoads, a clinical social worker who has researched the impact of teen social media use on mental health, connects the constant act of measuring one’s self against others to resulting self-doubt.
He’s found a strong connection between those that have a severe dependence on social media for self-worth, with higher rates of anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and thoughts of suicide.
Life still exists offline too: growing self-validation in the real world
Taking time away from the constant feedback and comparison is a good idea for people of all ages – but especially for those whose ability to validate themselves is still under construction.
Unplugging can help put the relative importance of online feedback into proper perspective. Taking time to foster social skills and build quality, supportive, in-person relationships are proven keys to growing confidence.
“We have to prepare the child for the path,
not the path for the child.” – Tim Elmore
Value in the process, the effort – not just end result
Let’s be real. Success in anything over the long-term will include set-backs and failure and learning and re-tooling.
It’s normal and inevitable. Hiding that fact isn’t helping anyone, least of all the offspring you hope to move out some day.
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Donna Wick suggests there’s much more benefit to kids when parents emphasize and reward effort, regardless of the outcome.
When children and teenagers can understand that mistakes and failure are natural but can be overcome by their own effort and internal drive, it sets the stage for not only self-validation but empowerment.
“If our children are to approve of themselves, they must see that we approve of ourselves.” – Maya Angelou
The biggest thing parents have going for them is their ability to influence by modeling self-validation themselves.
But it’s not enough to talk about it.
We teach the most when we model emotional expression, healthy resilience and when we take pride and see value in our efforts, regardless of the final result.
As parents, we are uniquely qualified to help children listen to, get to know and accept themselves. By showing them what it looks like to fall down, we also have the opportunity to model what it looks like to get back up.
If the goal is to empower truly self-confident and self-validated kids, it’s internally validated parents who are the greatest influencers of all.
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