In this episode: A parent writes that her 5-year-old is constantly asking, “Did I do a good job?” and seeking her parents’ validation. This mom acknowledges that her daughter’s world was rocked when her sister was born almost two years ago, and they’ve been working at supporting her to process her feelings in that regard. Now, she says, although her daughter has “let go a lot of her anger… I can’t help but wonder if it’s the result of being insecure in her relationship with us after her sister was born.”
Transcript of “4 Reasons Children Seek Validation (And How to Respond)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. In this week’s episode, I’m responding to a parent who is concerned because her five-year-old seems to be needing a lot validation, asking, “Did I do a good job?” etc. This parent is wondering how to respond without shaking her confidence and also without getting her hooked on needing outside validation.
Here’s the message I received.
“Hi Janet, I’m the mom of a spirited and sensitive almost five-year-old. When her sister was born almost two years ago, her world was rocked and we’ve been slowly but surely working with her to work through her strong feelings. She’s made great strides over the past six months and, outside of the normal sibling issues, has let go of a lot of her anger and they play well together most of the time.
There’s one thing we’re noticing a lot lately though. She’s constantly asking for our validation. Every time she accomplishes anything, she asks, ‘Did I do a good job?’ or ‘Did you like when I did that?’ It seems like it’s almost become a habit for her. We try to respond by saying, ‘Yes, and how did it make you feel?’ Or simply, ‘You did it.’
Today at her first swim lesson of the season, she spent the whole time looking my way and saying, ‘I did it! Did I do a good job?’ After every accomplishment. I can’t help but wonder if it’s still the result of being insecure in her relationship with us after her sister was born. We try to do special one-on-one time with her and connect with her individually each day, but could we be doing more? How should we be responding when she asked these questions?
I don’t want to say or do anything to shake her confidence, but I also know it’s best to teach her to look within versus looking for outside validation. I really appreciate your teachings. You’ve helped us build relationships with our daughters that have allowed us to both guide and connect, and I welcome any help you can provide.”
Okay. I can think of a few reasons for this little girl to be consistently asking for validation.
One might be that (1) this kind of validation has been given to her in the past. I don’t know if this parent has done that or not, but that is one reason that children will seek that kind of stamp of approval and be looking outside themselves. It can be that the parents made a big hoopla about every little thing the child did, and that kind of takes a child out of their own intrinsic motivation into seeking that outside approval and outside validation. Again, I don’t know if any of that is going on in this case, but that’s one of the reasons the children get into this.
Another might be that (2) her confidence has taken a bit of a hit, as it often does through this huge world-rocking experience (as her mother describes it and I’ve described it), of having to adjust to her position in the family, moving over a bit, making room for this new vibrant person. Most children in this situation demonstrate a lot of behavior out of their own pain that parents don’t react positively to. This isn’t to blame anyone either. It is hard to understand and empathize with the child in this situation, because we’re going through our own adjustment.
Now, it sounds like this family has worked very hard to maintain the close relationship with their daughter throughout this adjustment that, in this case, included anger, as it often does, which actually usually stems from fear — intense fear about what they’ve lost, and if their life is still going to be okay and these people are still going to love them just as much. These are deep-seated fears that children have. Their behavior usually demonstrates that and it’s not pretty. Therefore, there is a good chance that even the best of us as parents will respond in a way that’s a little bit rejecting at times. A child might seek more reassurance. So that’s reason two that this might be happening.
Reason three might be that (3) a child doesn’t feel they have the parent’s attention in these situations where they are working hard, learning something, accomplishing things, performing. Whether that’s at home or outside at a lesson, as in a swim class.
Sherry Turkle did a wonderful study with adolescent children who were asked about their parent’s tech use and when it bothered them the most. It did indeed bother children that their parents were constantly on their tech devices. The children felt shut out or interrupted. There were three times the children were most bothered by this that are all very in line with Magda Gerber’s approach:
Mealtimes. Children wanted their parents undivided attention at mealtimes and it was hurtful not to get it.
Transitions, meaning when the parent is picking the child up from school, taking the child to school, to not be on their phone and not be looking at their text messages. To really be present for those difficult transitions. Children are challenged at these times.
The third was when children were at soccer practice or taking their violin lesson. Doing something that required them to stretch, challenge themselves and all the stress that goes along with that. They really wanted their parent’s attention at that time, their full attention.
It could be that these parents, even though the mom says she is trying to do one-on-one time with her and connect with her individually each day, maybe she’s not as completely present as she could be in those moments. Or maybe there are other times like these lessons when it would really help for her to understand that it’s important to her daughter to have her full attention at that time. Asking questions like, “Did I do a good job? Do you like when I did that?” Those could all be ways that this little girl is trying to get her mother’s attention. “Hey did you see me? Look over here.” Trying to pull her in to really see her.
Now, the fourth reason is the one that I would say is definitely a part of this particular situation, and that is that this little girl senses (as children seem to always do) that her mother is a little uncomfortable around these questions and this validation seeking that her child is doing. She’s conflicted. She’s concerned about her daughter looking for outside validation. It bothers her. She wishes she wasn’t doing that.
All of those feelings swirling around in this parent that gave her the impetus to reach out to ask me these questions are playing a big role in her daughter’s behavior. Because (4) when children sense that we’re a little off balance by something they do or say, it’s hard for them not to keep going there, to keep testing that out. It’s a little strange for them. It’s a little interesting. It’s a little curious. Wow, I’m pushing a bit of a button here.
It doesn’t seem that this is a big button for this parent in that she’s getting angry or frustrated, but she wants to do the right thing and she’s worried that maybe she’s done something “wrong” in the past in the way that she handled this transition with the sibling. All of that is coming through and this little girl is feeling it.
Now, the good news here is that all of those different reasons that a child might be seeming to seek validation from the parent, they all have the same cure. What I’m going to suggest to this parent, I would suggest in any of those cases of the four cases that I brought up. It’s across the board the best way to respond. And that is to give her what she’s asking for — clearly, enthusiastically, without this parent questioning herself or questioning her daughter. Just go with it, because that will take the test out of it. That will take the power out of it. It will help heal any insecurities that are there. If it’s genuine, which is the only way that I would do it, it will actually help her with getting stuck in approval seeking, because she’s getting it in abundance and she’s getting it in a real way.
It’s not going to be just a little automatic stamp of approval that this parent gives without really thinking as we, parents, often do, everybody around us seems to do. “Good job!” but I’m not really paying attention to you. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about really giving it to her. Along with that, I would give undivided attention at these lessons or situations where your child is stretching herself, reaching high, working on something, struggling, accomplishing.
It doesn’t have to be every single time, but when we can put everything away and pay full attention at caregiving times, waking her up in the morning with a big hug, brushing her hair in the morning, helping her get dressed, sitting down at meals, helping her go to bed at night, reading that book to her, and when you take her to the swim lesson. Then the rest of the time, you don’t have to pay full attention.
Having those boundaries for ourselves as parents is important to our children. It also will help us to feel clearer and not doubt ourselves as much. That time of really observing your child when she’s doing these things, like any observation, is the key to understanding our child better and really connecting. Sensitive observation. We don’t have to do anything.
This daughter is asking for a response, so in that case, I would. For example, she asked, “Did I do a good job?” This parent suggested that she says, “Yes, and how did it make you feel?”
I think children see through that. They see that you’re not really committing to it. That you’re trying to shift it over to her. Even though that’s very subtle and obviously very well-intentioned, children feel that. They feel our agenda there. Children know. They’re aware.
So I wouldn’t say it that way. I would say a wholehearted, “Yes, I think you did. Wow. Sure, you did. Yeah!”
“Do you like when I did that?”
“I do. I like that very much in fact.”
Say it, mean it and welcome it, and the need your daughter has for it will lessen. It will be healed. That’s simple, right? All we have to do is go with it. Give that daughter all that encouragement and rah-rah cheerleading that she’s asking for.
That’s different than if we do it all ourselves when it’s not asked for, and that’s what happens with younger children than this that can get hooked into the praise. Often, it comes from us not observing. We see them discover something or accomplish something and they’re very focused and they’re very intent on it and they’re not even looking at us. We say, “Woo, woo. Good job. That’s fantastic.” We interrupt them.
I know that would have been my tendency before studying with Magda Gerber. I was a cheerleader in high school. That’s what we did. That’s what my parents did, or my mother did at least, but it can become getting hooked into pleasing those important people around us. I love that this mother understands she doesn’t want to do that.
What I hope to have helped with in this podcast is to show this parent and any other parent going through this how to shift it. Even if she asked after every accomplishment, “I did it. Did I do a good job?”
“You did it. You sure did. Yes. It seemed to be a very good job there.” You can be quite honest and also wholehearted at the same time.
I hope those thoughts help.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.