At just 13 years old, I had been in and out of the hospital for major depressive disorder and entered treatment. I was consumed by hopelessness in every aspect of my life. I remember being most overwhelmed when I fought against the emotions I was feeling. The longer I avoided addressing the negative emotions that plagued me, the more intense they became.
It was difficult to connect with my parents. My dad couldn’t understand the emptiness, loneliness and hopelessness I felt. Though he could see that I was in pain and suffering — and he acknowledged that. After recognizing the degree to which I was struggling, my parents worked tirelessly to get me help. We participated in inpatient, outpatient, individual and family therapies to try and shift my depressive moods, but nothing seemed to work.
With few options left, I began what would become a year and a half of intensive treatment. The first four months of this journey took place at a residential program just outside of Boston. The clinicians here recognized that depression and anxiety don’t occur in a vacuum and it’s important for the entire family to be involved in the healing process. During those six weeks, my parents learned the same skills alongside other parents and visited me every week to practice these new relationship dynamics.
The biggest shift came after we learned the skill validation. My parents were able to create space for what I was feeling, allowing me to feel accepted and safe in our relationship. From there, we had enough of a foundation to work through conflicts, miscommunications and other things that had pushed us apart.
Validation can be a complex concept, but boiled down, it’s the practice of creating space and appreciating someone else's thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences. Simply put, acknowledging that someone's (or your own) feelings are valid.
I experienced an equal shift in my relationship with myself when I began to practice self-validation. Each time I thought to myself: "You shouldn’t be feeling depressed. Why aren’t you getting better by now? You don’t deserve this support," I rewired these beliefs. Instead, telling myself, “It's OK that I’m feeling this way. Healing takes time and I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in my journey. I am deserving of love and support in life.” Slowly but surely, I taught myself that emotions were OK and safe to experience. I was able to recover from that depression because I was no longer fighting two battles — one debating the validity of my emotions and one to break free from my suffering.
All in all, validation is all around a game-changer for everyone involved.
How to support a teen who is struggling
For anyone supporting a teen navigating a mental health challenge and looking for advice — I direct you to validation. This will improve your relationship making it more likely your teen will go to you for support. It will allow your teen to feel seen, heard and loved, making them feel less isolated and helpless. And lastly, it creates a foundation to navigate further challenges together.
My parents and I followed the guidelines of dialectical behavioral therapy, as outlined in a DBT skills workbook by Marsha M. Linehan:
- Pay attention: Look interested in the other person (don't look at your phone while listening). Be alert to facial expressions, body language and more.
- Reflect back: Say back what you have heard the other person say or do, to be sure you understand exactly what the person is saying. No judgmental language or tone of voice!
- Understand: Look for how what the other person is feeling, thinking or doing makes sense based on the person’s past experiences, present situation and/or current state of mind of physical condition.
- Acknowledge and validate: Note that the person’s feelings, thinking or actions are valid and understandable responses because they fit current facts.
- Show equality: Don’t "one-up" or "one-down" the other person. Treat them as an equal, not as fragile or incompetent.
Like I mentioned, I tried multiple treatment options for my depression and anxiety before I reached recovery. The reason nothing stuck was that I was going through the motions to appease others — my parents, therapists, community members and more. I didn’t believe it was possible for me to get better so I wasn’t invested in my growth.
I believe this is true for any goal an individual is pursuing. The results will be much more long-lasting if it’s intrinsically driven. This is why validation is such a great resource. You can create the space for a teenager to feel safe enough to ask for help, voice their struggle and begin their journey of growth without forcing them into this process. So if you’re looking to start this conversation with a teen, start by describing and expressing the situation: “I’ve noticed you acting differently recently and I’m worried. I love you so much and want the best for you. If you need support or want to talk, I’m here for you.” Even if they don’t initially open up, you’re laying a foundation for this later conversation. Once they come to you, then you’ll insert validation: "I see you’re really struggling, that must be so overwhelming to navigate," and offer to help find further resources.
Advice for teens on how to support their mental health
A common feeling among teens is anxiety surrounding posting on social media. If you were to practice self-validation on this, it would sound a bit like: “I’m feeling anxiety right now. It makes sense because I care about being accepted and supported by my friends and community. It’s OK that I’m feeling anxious,” and so on and so forth. While this seems like a small skill, we can’t expect to change anything in life without first accepting our reality, and validation allows us to do this through a compassionate, non-judgmental lens.
From here you can implement a whole host of other skills. Through the social media lens, you can:
- Be mindful of your thoughts and emotions as you scroll — without judgment, paying attention to them.
- Be a critical consumer and unfollow or block accounts that are harming your mental health.
- Practice self-care (examples: read a book, go on a walk, bake cookies or listen to music) and unplug from social media to decrease feelings of anxiety.
- Ask for help from a trusted adult if you’re feeling that the intensity or duration of your emotions aren’t serving you.
In addition to these tips, I manage my relationship with social media by cultivating an awareness of my consumption: How much am I scrolling? Why am I scrolling (boredom, avoiding)? What emotions come up? This awareness helps me decide if it’s an experience I want to shift to be more positive. If so, I’ll take a day off, unfollow individuals that aren’t making me feel good on social media, and follow creators that make me feel happy and inspired. We have so much power to be a critical consumer on social media and cultivate our feeds so they're more uplifting.
Although we all experience very similar emotions, we’ll never understand exactly what others are feeling. However, we can bridge this gap in understanding through validation and use this as a foundation to improve our own mental health or support someone else.