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Validating Your Child's Emotions as Prevention for Developmental Trauma

Updated: Jul 6

In the intricate dance of parenting, one of the most profound gifts we can offer children is a safe relationship container to validate and hold the experience of their emotions. Yet, in a world often driven by productivity and performance, the importance of this simple act can be overlooked. Providing a secure relationship container is about more than loving your children—it’s giving infants and young ones the attuned reflection they need to validate their emotions and experiences. To be attuned is to be in sync on the same wavelength. It’s only possible when we are available to hold our child’s emotions empathetically and with presence—without triggering our own fears, anxieties, and hurts, and without judgment, condemnation, or shame, allowing the full intensity of the emotion to be felt and understood.

Preserving attachment to the caregiver is paramount in a child’s world. When a parent is unable to provide a safe relationship container, children learn to suppress uncomfortable experiences and emotions, disconnecting from and defending against the vulnerable parts of themselves. These defences develop as coping strategies that help children avoid the pain of not being seen and heard, allowing them child to find validation and acceptance in other ways.

Gabor Maté, a pioneer in the field of childhood development and trauma, puts it this way: “The experience of the person was that: ‘when I’m open and vulnerable, I will not be seen, not validated, or not valued. I’m going to have to shut down, because I feel too vulnerable.’ Now you have trauma, by my definition”.

A child’s adaption of behaviour to compensate for developmental trauma is often at the expense of their long-term well-being.

“Growing scientific evidence demonstrates that social and physical environments that threaten human development because of scarcity, stress, or instability can lead to short-term physiologic and psychological adjustments that are necessary for immediate survival and adaptation, but which may come at a significant cost to long-term outcomes in learning, behavior, health, and longevity.” 2012 article in the Journal of Pediatrics called “An Integrated Scientific Framework for Child Survival in Early Childhood Development.”

Essentially, what starts as a temporary adaptation can become a lasting trait, posing challenges to a child’s authenticity and well-being. It’s crucial to recognise coping behaviours and address the underlying emotional suppression and disconnection to self to foster healthy development and resilience in children.

Validating Emotions: Building Resilience and Self-Worth

In situations where children feel compelled to suppress their vulnerability to maintain a connection with a caregiver, they often perceive the experience and resulting emotions as a wrongdoing on their behalf. This can lead to the development of deep-seated beliefs about their self-worth, such as “there’s something wrong with me,” “I’m unlovable,” “I’m not enough,” “it’s my fault.” These negative beliefs become powerful drivers in their lives, shaping how they interact with others, behave, and form relationships. Seeking acceptance from external sources becomes their primary focus, overshadowing their ability to love and value themselves. Their resilience is compromised, and when faced with triggering situations, they often spiral into fight-or-flight responses, regressing to emotions long repressed from childhood.

On the flip side, when children learn to preserve their vulnerability while maintaining a strong bond with their caregiver, they develop a robust sense of self-worth and resilience. Instead of internalising blame and negative beliefs, they understand their own value and importance. With the freedom to express themselves authentically, they navigate the world with confidence and a sense of worthiness. These positive beliefs guide their lives, shaping their interactions, behaviours, and relationships.

In moments of adversity, such as bullying on the playground, these children are able to shrug off derogatory remarks with ease. They know deep down that they are lovable, worthy, and significant. This solid foundation of self-love and acceptance empowers them to face challenges head-on without spiralling into self-doubt or insecurity.

Authenticity versus Personality: Navigating Adaptive Behaviors

When developmental trauma causes us to disconnect from vulnerable parts of ourselves, we also lose touch with our gut and heart. We’ve been conditioned to believe that staying true to ourselves might threaten our relationships—a survival strategy deeply ingrained in us. Authenticity often gets sidelined in favour of maintaining attachment with our primary caregiver, a pattern that persists into adulthood, where authenticity feels intimidating and anxiety-provoking.

Our genuine self is dynamic, responsive, and present in the moment. From birth, we possess innate qualities such as compassion, courage, and self-worth. We also have core needs such as connection, love, attunement, trust, and autonomy. If these qualities and needs are not acknowledged or respected, we suppress them to be accepted, creating a void within us. This emptiness is filled by our personality, which develops as a coping mechanism for our unmet needs. While we often identify strongly with our personality, it is merely a blend of our genuine traits and coping mechanisms. We cling to our personality because it’s how we’ve survived, but it’s often rigid and fails to satisfy our inner emptiness, adversely affecting our long-term well-being.

Withdrawal, for instance, might serve as a short-term adaptation for a child, alleviating the anxiety of perceived abandonment. However, over time, it can undermine our relationships and deprive us of the connection we deeply desire. Perfectionism, on the other hand, can offer short-term relief for children, shielding them from the pain of feeling inadequate. However, our relentless pursuit of flawlessness and a lack of self-compassion for our imperfections will ultimately derail us. When we inevitably fall short of our unrealistic standards, it triggers self-loathing and negative emotions.

Many adult mental health issues are the learned adaptions of children who repressed their emotions and ignored their needs to stay close to their caregivers. As adults, they often feel responsible for everyone else, have difficulty saying no, and have trouble expressing anger. Seeking approval, they may end up in relationships where they give too much or try too hard to please, feeling responsible and guilty for the emotions of others. Sadly, this selflessness often means they neglect their own well-being because they fail to recognise their needs.

When the precarious situations created out of personality adaptations fail to invoke the desired outcome, the original trauma can be triggered, stirring up old childhood beliefs, emotions, and reactions. Conversely, when children’s needs are met and their innate qualities are recognised and encouraged, their essential selves and true self-worth remain intact. This connection ensures they can navigate life authentically and confidently, resulting in happier, more fulfilling relationships and lives aligned with their innate gifts and purpose.

Validating emotions: A defence against Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction

The consequences of unvalidated emotions extend far beyond childhood, permeating into adulthood in subtle yet profound ways. Those who lack validation during their formative years often grapple with addiction, depression, or anxiety. The absence of emotional support from parents and the feeling of being unseen and unaccepted inflict deep wounds. As children, unable to articulate this pain because there is no one there to hear it, we bury it, moulding our behaviour to seek love, acceptance, and security.

However, this suppression comes with a considerable cost. Initially a survival tactic, it stunts emotional growth and hampers our ability to lead authentic lives, disconnecting us from passion, vitality, and joy. Consequently, we may harbour limiting beliefs and negative thoughts, eventually leading to a diagnosis of depression.

Unfortunately, the original pain and hurt don’t go away either. As we get older, we may turn to cannabis, alcohol, caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs to soothe our pain and invoke long-suppressed feelings of joy, freedom, vitality, and love—basic human needs that we seek out at any cost.

Developmental trauma may also result in the inability to trust yourself, see yourself, and believe in yourself. Without a strong self-belief and acceptance for who you are, including your imperfections, you may suffer from anxiety in perceived pressure situations invoking traits that cause you to disconnect from your essential self, such as tuning out, ringing ears, getting lost in thought, or spiralling into fight or flight.

Fortunately, the antidote to this suffering lies in the consistent validation of a child’s emotions from infancy through adulthood. Resolving this suffering as an adult requires the assistance of a somatic therapist to untangle coping mechanisms and adaptations, restoring us to our authentic selves by allowing suppressed emotions and beliefs to surface and be released. Somatic therapy addresses the unconscious drivers of our lives by using the body as a means to learn and grow, paving the way for healing and wholeness.

The Healing Power of Validation

By offering our children a safe space to express their emotions and listening with empathy and compassion we can nurture confident, authentic, happy children. Validation provides a fertile ground for emotional growth, fostering resilience and self-confidence. As caregivers, we have the power to shape the emotional landscape of future generations, paving the way for a world where authenticity and vulnerability are celebrated rather than feared.

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