Thoughts on the Damage Caused by a Child’s Invalidating Early Environment

I see a lot of myself in the 11-year old I look after. She is sensitive, clingy, a perfectionist, always wanting to help others. She can’t stand to be alone, has a huge guilt complex and needs constant reassurance. She appears emotionally young for her age, and claims to often feel misunderstood or judged by others. She is a gentle and vulnerable soul in need of a lot of love, acknowledgement and overt validation. She is much like me.

Despite how apparent her needs seems to me, throughout the time I have worked with the family I have only perceived the father as treating her in a way totally contradictory to this. I am consistently taken aback by his dismissive, judgemental, shaming attitude towards her, and his lack of awareness around how hurtful his actions can be – both in the short and long term.

I have learnt a lot about the importance of Validation during my DBT treatment. From my own experience, alongside research I have done on the topic, I have come to realise the absolutely vital importance of an early environment that is experienced as validating to a child. I have also learnt first-hand the damage that can ensue when a sensitive child is constantly invalidated – having been that child myself.

The number of times a day I hear the father says something to his 11-year old which she experiences as invalidating is obscene. More of what he says to her comes across as invalidating than it does validating. In fact, he rarely has anything positive to say to her at all; it is all shaming, blaming, naming and dismissing. I know now that this is not just me projecting my personal experiences onto her, despite having questioned the accuracy of my perception multiple times! I know that this is legitimate and not ‘just in my head’, because she tells me herself loud and clear – and there is no disputing the feelings she is experiencing and directly expressing to me.

She tells me that her father never listens to her, that he is always getting angry with her when she tries to explain her feelings to him, that he doesn’t have time for her, and that she may as well give up trying to get through to him because it’s the same every time. She expresses feelings of fear towards him and what he will think of her during an interaction, and she even asks me to communicate her feelings and needs to him on her behalf. She often appears to be walking on eggshells around him, unsure of what to expect, often staying silent because she would rather be ‘safe than sorry’.

Honestly, it is no wonder this is her take on things, considering the manner in which he speaks to her. Everything she says seems to be followed by an “Uch, don’t be so ridiculous”, “I am too tired for this right now”, or a “Stop always crying and behaving like such a baby” from him. The worst thing he does is give her this piercing look of disdain which even I can feel the sting of as a mere observer.

It hurts to see this child, who has become something like a sister to me, being constantly fed such damaging and dismissive messages such as these by her father. Even though I have only been working with them for a few months, I have already noticed her start standing up for herself less and less, shrinking into herself more and more, and even doubting her own internal experiences for what they are.

This is exactly what happens when a child’s emotional world is dismissed instead of acknowledged, shamed instead of mirrored, beaten down instead of embraced, over and over (and over and over and over) again. After continually being put down in this way by a parental figure, at some point, a sensitive child will be likely to take on these reiterated beliefs and attitudes for them self; if someone is told continually over a period of months and years that their feelings are invalid, unimportant or silly, then of course these beliefs will eventually be adopted by the individual, too.

It is so sad to see such a sensitive, free-spirited, intelligent young girl being transformed before my very eyes into an ashamed, self-doubting, self-judgemental young woman.


12 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Damage Caused by a Child’s Invalidating Early Environment

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