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How can I validate my child's feelings... when they can't talk yet?

I'm always excited to get questions from other parents.

Last night someone sent me a video from YouTube of a parent struggling to validate the feelings of his non verbal 3 year old, and asked what I would say to him.

It's a great question. How can we validate the feelings of someone who is on the one hand intensely emotional (read: throws enormous tantrums for large portions of your day) but on the other hand highly unresponsive?

As many of you will know I have a currently non (hopefully pre) verbal son. He's the 3rd of 4 of my children who seem to sadly experience many symptoms which are sometimes collectively labelled as autism or autism spectrum disorders.

Children like mine, and many others can have trouble identifying their own feelings, and managing them, so what is our role and how do we validate them?

To answer I will give examples from our current life, but I'm sure you can apply this to many situations you find yourself in with your little ones.

We talk. And talk, and talk, I can give you an example that is happening right now as I type: My son is listening to a certain song that repeats the same word: "Happy", FAR too many times. On occasion, i hear my son pracising this song to himself it sound like hes saying "a bee! a bee! a bee! a bee!"

As he watches, he is banging his head on the wall. Clearly he is not equating the word "happy" with the feeling. Or is he? He's not crying, and he doesn't want the song turned off. So I'm going to work on the assumption that he is, in fact, enjoying the song. So I look at my son to try and establish eye contact, and I say something like " This song is about being happy! Are you happy? You are banging your head! Banging our heads does not look happy. Would you like mummy to change the song?"


"Ok! You are enjoying the happy song! So you don't need to bang your head."

I'm not a therapist, so if you are one, and I have done this wrong, please do leave comments because I am always keen to learn!

For now though, this is what I have to work with and this is the way that I manage. If one of my children seems to be having a problem I name exactly what I see.

Last night I gave an example of my son getting a hold of something dangerous (unfortunately non verbal children don't stay small like toddlers and reaching things that are kept on high surfaces or locked in cupboards that they now know how to undo becomes more of an issue). So my first step here would be to intervene and remove the object (Rusty loves "cooking" so reaches into the dishwasher for cooking utensils that can be sharp). As the emotional outburst unfolds, my son is both a hugger and a head butt-er! So I will move to cuddle him but do my best to make us both safe. He will inevitably scream, and I will say something like: "Mummy has taken the object away because it is dangerous. You wish you could have it. You are so sad and upset and you are banging your head, but that hurts." And then I let him shout and yell. Because how else can he have his say and get those feelings off his chest? Some of my other children had different ways of managing big feelings. One used to pretend steam was coming out of his ears like Thomas the Tank Engine when he was angry... and this way avoided taking it out on his baby sister.

Another had to be held and danced around to relieve the adrenaline from the situation, and another would rush to get her crayons and scribble angry dark squiggles on the paper (and sometimes off the paper).

To make sure that I'm not only paying attention to dangerous or upsetting situations I do my best to name other emotions we are having. The older children had a lovely book where they got to guess and name the feelings on the character's faces, and one where you could draw smiles or frowns on with wipeable markers, these were great! Rusty doesn't do books or stories so we have to work in the moment. If he decides to play ball, or roll one of his cars (he's not a big toy player either) I'll make a big fuss. I'll say something like "wow you rolled the car! Cars roll on their wheels! You had so much fun! You have a big smile on your face! Can you roll the car again?"

Now, as I mentioned I am not a therapist, and I have no guarantee that this method is "working" except for the behaviour of my older children who seem to be emotionally articulate and self aware. I was not brought up to name or even really show feelings " little girls should be seen and not heard" so the whole process has been a learning curve and a bit of therapy for me despite the frustration it can cause!

My job as a doula is all about giving parents space to be heard and a validated, and so it seems to be a life calling as I get to spend my work and family time listening, and creating space.

I hope this gives you some ideas and I'd love to hear your thoughts

Rach x

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