The best thing a parent can do for a highly emotional child.


By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

I see many kids and teens that suffer from Depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality traits in therapy.

Many parents want to know, “What causes my child to feel so sad , lonely, depleted, apathetic, or angry?!” and some parents even go on to add, “I give her everything; she has a great life. There is no reason for her to feel this way.” (Yes, the “I give her everything” statement is the one I most often hear.)

That is my cue to meet that parent’s fears and pain by gently explaining some of the theories of the causes of mood disturbances. Basically, there are lots of fancy names for the theories, but the causes are typically a number of the following factors working in combination:

1) Biological factors (neurotransmitters, hormones, etc)

2) Environmental stresses (Hopeless scenarios, painful scenarios, overwhelming scenarios, lonely scenarios, invalidating environment)

3) Individual temperament (the child’s ways of thinking, threshold of tolerance for emotional discomfort, etc.)

Nowhere in that explanation does it imply “parents not giving their kids enough cause kids’ depression.”

I often (not all the time, but often) see mood disorders (especially variable mood disorders such as types of bipolar disorder and the emotional traits of borderline personality disorder) as being a function of all three of the causes listed above.

If necessary, a pediatric psychiatrist or family physician may address the biological components of extreme moods and behaviors.

An individual therapist can work with the child to increase her personal distress tolerance and coping skills and shift her ways of thinking to be less problematic.

And parents can work to address environmental factors. This is why parental consultation and often family therapy is often very helpful for the child’s emotional well-being.

The best way for parents to address environmental factors is to create what is called a “validating environment.” This means hearing and honoring the perspective of the child and who the child is. Even when her perspectives are not pleasant, are hard to hear, or are inconsistent with what the parent wants. In other words, letting the child know that her feelings are understandable, and who she is is okay.


Some examples of validation vs. invalidation are as follows:

“Just relax. It’s not that bad.”
“I can see how that would be upsetting.”

“You didn’t really mean that.”
“Tell me more about that.”

“Stop getting so angry.”
“It’s okay to feel angry, and I can see why you’d be angry, but it’s not okay to hit the wall.”

“How could you be so selfish!?”
“I could see how you would be compelled to do that, but we need to talk about a way to make everyone happy, not just you.”

Often times barriers to validating environments occur because:

1) parents really don’t relate to their child’s being so upset. They legitimately cannot understand why or how a child could be so emotional, and commonly get annoyed or dismissive with the child’s feelings. In this case, it is sometimes helpful to think of your child as a “highly sensitive person” instead of a flawed, weirdo for her emotional responses. Think about what it must be like to go through life as such a person (empathize), and begin to appreciate your child for who she is.

2) parents own anxieties, absence of control, anger, or fears of inadequacy are triggered when they are unable to “cure” or “change” their child, so they try to talk the child out of their feelings, deny the reality of the child’s perspective, or ignore the child’s feelings.

3) parent’s sense of “right and wrong” conflict with who the child is. Sometimes parents have learned that some very basic and healthy aspects of human nature are “wrong.” Often times, a child’s anger or sadness or pride or selfish impulse is seen with invalidation or disgust instead of seen as natural and making sense given the situation and human nature. I am all for religion, and studies have shown the benefits of religious beliefs on well-being and mental health, but often times extreme religious beliefs are behind this barrier to validation. Kids in strong religious environments are often given messages that their anger, emptiness (Jesus is supposed to be with you, for example), unhappiness (you are supposed to take comfort in Jesus’ message for example), anger, sadness, sexuality, and pride are to be stifled and disowned.


So why am I making such a big deal about the importance of creating a validating environment for a kid? Because one in five kids are estimated to be highly sensitive, and emotional sensitivity plus invalidating environment equal the perfect recipe for a child to end up on my therapy couch. And in a weird way, less business for me is a good thing for the world 😉

Here is a great book outlining the importance of validating our kids, and how to go about doing it:  The Power of Validation




Here are some research articles about the concept of validating and parenting (and how important it is for emotional outcomes)

Features of borderline personality disorder, perceived childhood emotional invalidation, and dysfunction within current romantic relationships.

Edward A Selby

Scott R Braithwaite

Thomas E Joiner

Frank D Fincham
Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1270, USA.
Journal of Family Psychology (Impact Factor: 1.89). 01/2009; 22(6):885-93. DOI: 10.1037/a0013673
Source: PubMed
ABSTRACT The mechanisms through which current romantic relationship dysfunction develops in individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms are still unclear. One possible pathway may be childhood experiences of emotional invalidation by parents, which may result in the development of poor social problem-solving skills or cognitive responses such as splitting, which impair current romantic relationships. This study examines the relationship between features of BPD and current romantic relationship dysfunction, and demonstrates that perceived emotional invalidation by parents during childhood mediates the relationship between BPD features and current romantic relationship dysfunction. Structural equations modeling was used to test the hypothesized model in 758 young adults in an ethnically diverse community sample. The proposed model fit the data well; perceived childhood emotional invalidation partially mediated the relationship between features of BPD and romantic relationship dysfunction, even when controlling for the presence of a major depressive episode in the last year. The findings of this study suggest that individuals with features of BPD experience relationship dysfunction that cannot be accounted for by comorbid depression and that perceived childhood emotional invalidation may contribute to these problems.
Article: Perceived emotional invalidation and borderline personality disorder features: A test of theory.
Bonnie Sturrock, David Mellor
[Hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Contemporary theories of borderline personality disorder (BPD) have detailed the functional importance of emotional invalidation in meaningful relationships as an aetiological and perpetuating factor of its core disturbances. The purpose of our study was to test aspects of Linehan’s (1993) biosocial and Fruzzetti (1996) and Fruzzetti, Shenk, and Hoffman’s (2005) validation/invalidation family interactions transactional theories in a community sample of 186 participants. Results indicated that a multi-mediational path model of invalidation in meaningful relationships, emotion dysregulation, poor distress tolerance and BPD symptoms provided a perfect fit to the data and accounted for a substantial amount of variance in BPD (38%). The results provided support for these complimentary theories of BPD, which hold promise for clinical applications and future research. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Personality and Mental Health 05/2014; 8(2):128-42. · 1.10 Impact Factor


Article: The Invalidating Childhood Environment Scale (ICES): Psychometric Properties and Relationship to Borderline Personality Symptomatology.
Christopher D Robertson, Nathan A Kimbrel, Rosemery O Nelson-Gray
[Hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: The objective of this study was to examine the psychometric properties of the Invalidating Childhood Environment Scale (ICES; Mountford, Corstorphine, Tomlinson, & Waller, 2004), a measure designed to retrospectively assess exposure to parental invalidation. The ICES was administered to a sample of female college students along with measures of parental bonding and borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptomatology. In contrast with previous findings, the ICES demonstrated excellent internal consistency within a nonclinical sample. It also correlated in the predicted directions with measures of parental bonding and BPD symptomatology. Taken together, these findings suggest that the ICES is a promising retrospective measure of parental invalidation. They also provide some support for the hypothesized link between parental invalidation and BPD symptomatology and suggest that additional research with clinical samples is needed.
Journal of personality disorders 06/2013; 27(3):402-410. · 3.08 Impact Factor


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