It might not come as a surprise that the majority of couples who decide to try marital or couples therapy report difficulty with emotional affection and/or communication as their primary concerns (Doss, Simpson, & Christensen, 2004). Undoubtedly, when couples with children struggle in areas of emotional affection and communication, dynamics between parents and children are also impacted.
When we interact on a daily basis, whether with family, friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, we send messages of validation in response to each other’s verbal and non-verbal expressions. This is especially important in parent-child relationships.
Buckholdt, Parra, & Jobe-Shields (2014, p. 324) suggest that in supportive parent-child relationships, youth:
- Feel comforted
- Perceive their parents as available to help them cope with distress
- Learn to understand, express, and regulate emotional experiences
In 2014, Buckholdt, Parra, & Jobe-Shields conducted a study examining parental emotion regulation and its role in the validation of teenage children. The researchers found that parents who struggled with emotion regulation were more likely to display invalidating responses to their adolescent’s expression of emotion. As a result, these adolescents were more likely to struggle with emotional regulation themselves.
Considering families often seek therapy around a need for improved emotional affection and communication, we might suggest that based on the above findings, validation and empathy are essential in moving forward.
Families as Tornadoes
Nearly a decade ago during training on a specific type of family therapy, a colleague likened family dynamics to a spinning mobile. They explained that in families when one family member begins to change, the other members of the family mobile also shift in a similar direction. Considering the recent findings on emotional regulation and its passage through generations, we might even better understand these dynamics through a tornado. A tall spinning funnel seems to illustrate the intergenerational movement of struggles in families, but more importantly, the impact of working through those struggles. If progress is being made, generations reproduce downward in the funnel, with intergenerational struggles gradually dissipating as each generation works to overcome them.
Unconditional Positive Regard
In the 1950s, humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term unconditional positive regard and identified it as one of the three core conditions of a person-centered therapeutic process. Since this time, the practice of unconditional positive regard has evolved alongside empathy as a foundational element of many more recent therapeutic modalities.
Like validation, unconditional positive regard is often misunderstood as explicit approval of one’s choices, actions, thoughts, or statements. Unconditional positive regard is the affirmation of another person’s best effort to move forward using the internal and external resources and capacities available to them at the time. It is a belief in each person’s right to self-determination and acceptance of the idea that each of us is the expert on ourself, our best interest, and the solutions that lie ahead.
Centered on unconditional positive regard, empathy, and authenticity in the therapeutic relationship, a person-centered approach to family therapy can help to initiate much-needed validation within the family system, counteracting the emotion dysregulation that can result in all of us when we feel unheard.