Health Matters 11/20: Opening the Door to Communication with Young Children


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By Chelsea DeMaio, L.C.S.W.

Getting your children to talk to you can sometimes feel harder than getting them to eat their vegetables or brush their teeth.

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But creating an environment in which your children feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings is just as important to their well-being as helping them with their school work.

And opening the door to communication when children are young can help keep it from being slammed shut when they reach adolescence.

Six Levels of Validation

In simplest terms, validation is a way to show your child that you get it. It is the ability to communicate that their thoughts, feelings and actions are understandable, and to create a psychologically safe space for them to open up.

Validation does not necessarily mean you agree. It means you hear your child and understand where they are coming from.

In using validation as an effective communication tool, it can be helpful to think in terms of the following six levels:

• Paying attention. At the very minimum, validation means paying attention. It means putting down your phone, turning off the TV and tuning in to what your child is trying to say to you. Parents are good a multitasking, but when it comes to communicating with your child it is important to push distractions to the side to show them that they have your full attention. Try setting aside at least 15 minutes every day to have a conversation with your child.

• Reflective listening. Reflective listening shows your child that you really do hear what they are saying. The act of reflective listening involves repeating back to your child what they said and asking if you got it right. For example, if your child is upset about not getting invited to a birthday party, you might say: “I hear you are sad about not getting invited to the party, is that right?” Try not to use language or a tone that may perceived as judgmental, and try not to get them to change their mind. Even though you know there will be other parties, it is important not to minimize the hurt your child is feeling at that moment.

• Reading between the lines. Try to be sensitive to what is not being said as much as you are to what you hear. Though you may not be able to read your child’s mind, you can sense when something is off. For instance, if your child is normally talkative at dinner and then one night is unusually quiet, don’t ignore it. Say to them: “You’re unusually quiet tonight. How are you feeling?”

• Understanding. Tell your child that you understand how they feel. For instance, let them know that it’s understandable to feel anxious about appearing on video for their virtual class or that it makes a lot of sense that they’re feeling angry that they can’t see their friends because of COVID-19 and the need to social distance.

• Acknowledging what is valid. Acknowledge when your child’s feelings make sense and that their behavior makes sense when there are facts and logic that support it. For example, if your child can’t sit still for class, acknowledge that it makes sense they are feeling tired and distracted, and might not want to sit at their desk.

• Showing equality. Show your child that even though they are young, their feelings carry equal weight. Avoid dismissing their feelings as childish or immature. There is a time and a place for parents to share their own experiences, but in the immediate situation that could come off as invalidating or one-upping. Keep the focus on your child.

Modeling and Light-Hearted Conversations

In addition to practicing the six levels of validation, parents can also encourage communication by practicing what they preach. By modeling positive communication in their own interactions, parents are showing their children how it can be done.

It is also important to remember that not every conversation has to be serious and deep. In fact, making room for light-hearted conversations can help make the more difficult conversations easier.

One way to encourage your children to talk is for each family member to write down a question on a popsicle stick or piece of paper, put them in a jar and pick one to discuss each night at dinner.

You might be surprised to learn what kind of superhero your child would be or who is their favorite athlete.

When Help Is Needed

Sometimes, children may not be able to express their emotions or handle their feelings effectively, even in households where open communication is practiced and valued.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 1 in 5 children living in the United States experience a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression in a given year.

Warning signs that your child may be struggling with a mental health disorder include:

• Increased isolation, withdrawing from friends and family.
• Changes in sleep.
• Changes in appetite.
• Increased argumentativeness.
• Tearfulness.
• Neglecting activities of daily living such as showering, brushing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning,
• Self-harm, such as cutting, scratching or hitting.

If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, talk to your pediatrician and seek help from a mental health professional.

The Children’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers intensive outpatient treatment services for children ages 6-12 with emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with functioning at school and home. The program helps children with impulse control problems, depression, and aggressive or self-destructive behavior.

The program features a comprehensive evaluation and medical management by a board certified child psychiatrist and age-appropriate therapeutic interventions from licensed master’s level clinicians and registered nurses. Currently, the program is offered via telemedicine three or five days per week for three hours per day. The program helps children:

• Improve self-control and coping ability.
• Express emotions in a positive way.
• Function in healthier ways at school and home.
• Improve self-esteem.

To learn more about the Children’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, call 888-437-1610 or visit

To listen to the Mind on Mental Health podcast by Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health visit

Chelsea DeMaio, L.C.S.W., is a licensed clinical social worker and a senior primary therapist with Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.

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