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Validation: Suicide Prevention Through a Different Lens

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Validation may be one of the most important skills to develop for all aspects of your work with young people. Validation is an especially powerful piece of the pre-prevention puzzle. Teenagers need to know that we hear them.

Validation is the focus of Part 3 of our three-part series based on the work of Brittani Senser. Here are the links back to Part 1: Impulse Control and Part 2: Emotional Regulation in case you missed them or just want to refresh your memory before reading on.

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    Part 3: Validation as pre-prevention

    Simply put, validation is recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But our human nature can make the simple act of validation difficult. We don’t always listen well. We often don’t pause to reflect on what we hear. Instead we blurt out what we think, and that can sound judgmental or even downright invalidating.

    When we respond without thinking, or without fully hearing a young person, or with judgment, or even well-intended advice, it can actually have the effect of invalidating. When you invalidate someone, you make them feel like you don’t understand them or their feelings, or you do understand but you don’t care. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.

    It only takes a little extra attention on your part to offer genuine validation to a young person. Here are some ideas to build your skill:

    • Being present: Giving the young person your full, undivided attention in the moment
    • Accurate reflection: Saying back to them the feeling they have named
    • Reading their behavior and assessing what they might be feeling
    • Understanding their behavior in terms of their history and biology
    • Normalizing or recognizing emotional reactions that anyone would have
    • Radical genuineness and empathy
    • Matched vulnerability: Your own self-disclosure, in context, in a way that doesn’t take away from the young person’s experience

    It’s never too soon to talk about suicide

    Some people believe that talking about suicide is dangerous, that it might plant the idea instead of preventing the act. Turns out that is just not true. Talking about suicide is important to the work of suicide prevention.

    Unfortunately, there is no easy way to know which youth may be at greatest risk for suicide. And sometimes no matter what we do as adults to prevent a young person from harm, they may still take terrible risks with irreversible consequences. Some will complete suicide. But it is certainly better to equip all young people early and often rather than waiting to act when we are seeing warning signs.

    In addition to the three skills we’ve covered in this series – impulse control, emotional regulation, and validation – here are some helpful ways you can  incorporate modeling and teaching pre-prevention skills to all young people:

    • Talk with them about suicide
    • Talk with them about what is going on biologically
    • Create a safety plan together, whether they are presenting warning signs or not

    You can explore different age-appropriate ways to set up safety plans on the web. Please find some options you could naturally work into your programming. Equip all young people with real resources they can have at hand, especially when they are on their own and not able to clearly consider how to keep themselves safe.

    YIPA offers an online training, Talking Healthy Choices with Young People, free to YIPA members. Brittani’s training, Pre-prevention Tools to Improve Suicide Prevention is an invaluable resource and also free to our members. Anything you can do to improve how you listen and communicate with young people will be well worth your extra effort.

    About the author

    Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Barbara a question or share your feedback about this blog, email [email protected].

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