Research indicates that emotional dysregulation is a result of invalidating environment. Can you please comment?

DBT-CEnglishSupersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Invalidation is not something intrinsically bad. It just means that something does not make sense. Validation, on the other hand, means that something does make sense. Every time we teach a skill or provide cognitive restructuring, we are invalidating, as we are implying that prior means did not fit a desired goal (e.g., if you want to live a happy life, killing yourself is not going to help). Every time we accept that there are causes to a response, we are validating (e.g., I understand why you want to cut yourself because it helps you decrease suffering in the moment). 

An environment is described as invalidating when it indiscriminately and pervasively labels child’s responses (e.g., thoughts, feelings and behaviors) as not making sense or invalid. For example, a child is crying after punching a friend who broke her favorite toy. A mother tells the child that she should never punch her friends and that there is nothing to cry about. The first statement invalidates the invalid (i.e., indeed physical aggression is not an effective way to resolve problems), while the second statement invalidates the valid (i.e., sadness is a valid response to a loss). 

Most parents of supersensers are capable, loving, and well-meaning. This is especially evident in families with several children, where a supersenser is climbing walls, so to speak, while her siblings are doing very well. The issue is that “good-enough parenting” may not be good enough to meet the needs of supersensers. 

Supersensitivity is the opposite of resiliency, which is a capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilient children are like ducks in the water, everything just rolls down the feathers. Supersensers are more like rocks that immediately drown. Resiliency can also be described as a psychic immunity. Within this simile, supersensers are born with weak or no psychic immunity and need to learn to acquire it. 

Emotional dysregulation stems from a transaction between a child born without psychic immunity and parents who are not well prepared to help their child in the process of acquiring it. When the environment is not able to adequately satisfy the needs, it destabilizes the child further. A more destabilized child continues to stretch an environment’s ability to respond adequately, which leads to further destabilization of the child, and so forth. Thus, an invalidating environment is usually not a starting point but a result of the transaction between child’s needs and parental inability to meet these needs. In turn, the transaction between an emotionally sensitive child and invalidating environment, over time may lead to the development of a psychopathology. Indeed, research shows that such children are at an increased risk to develop alcohol and substance use problems, suicidality and non-suicidal self-injury, depression, anxiety, and personality disorders in adolescence and adulthood. The main goals of DBT-C are to teach these children adaptive coping skills and effective problem-solving and to teach their parents how to create a validating and change-ready environment.


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