"Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds. You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom." - Anonymous
Unconditional love isn't just what we feel. It's what the object of our
love feels: love without strings attached. That means our child doesn't have
to be, or do, anything in particular to earn our love. We love her exactly
as she is.
A tall order, since most of us have a little list of things we want "fixed" in
"If only he'd be nicer to his sister....When will she use the potty?.... He's so timid and needy...
I just want her to sleep through the night...He's great, but I would have
loved a daughter this time....She argues with everything I say; why does she have to be so strong-willed?...Why does he lose everything?! He drives me crazy!"
It's true, our children can drive us crazy. But can you imagine feeling
like you just aren't good enough, the way you are? That's not what any of
us want for our child. And the paradox is, it's hard for any of us to change
when we feel defensive. That goes doubly for a child, who feels more threatened
by our disapproval. When your child feels unconditionally loved, he's more likely
to blossom. And you're more likely to see change.
So what can you do to accept your child unconditionally? Start with these
1. Appreciate your child’s "weaknesses." Everyone has traits
that take special effort to manage. But it gets easier if you remember that
human "weaknesses" can be understood as the flip side of our strengths. For
instance, a child might be incredibly stubborn, arguing with her parents to get
what she wants until she simply wears them down. While that trait is hard to live
with, the flip side of the trait is dogged persistence. This is the kind
of persistence that will serve this child well if she grows up to be a scientist,
a novelist, and attorney.... indeed, almost any profession would be served by such
If this is our child, we can help her understand that her persistence is an asset,
but can also drive others crazy and make them angry at her. She needs to
learn to modulate it and use it, rather than letting it control her. Helping children
to know themselves well and to manage themselves to best meet their overall goals
is one of the most helpful gifts any parent can give a child.
2. Grieve. Maybe you wanted a boy but you got a girl. Maybe
you wanted a quiet, cooperative child but you got an exuberant live wire.
Maybe your child has special challenges that make parenting extra tough.
Maybe you're just sorry she got that tangly curly mop instead of your silken mane.
If there's something you wish were different about your child, he or she is likely
to sense it. The understanding may not be in words, but in some visceral
sense of not being good enough. The solution is to let yourself feel those
feelings, and grieve. Let it go. Grief burns, but it cleanses the psyche and helps
us make peace with what is. From there, we can embrace our actual child, not some
idea of who he or she should be.
3. See your child's "faults" from your child's point of view. Naturally,
we assume we're right....which makes our child wrong. But we could see it
another way, a way that is actually much closer to reality: All "misbehavior" from your child is an SOS. Under
your child's misbehavior there is always a reason, an upset feeling or unmet need.
Address that underlying reason, not the behavior, and you'll see a change in your
child -- because you answered her SOS.
- Maybe he'd be nicer to his sister if he wasn't worried that he's lost his special
place in your heart, and what he needs is more connection to you.
- Maybe she gets so involved in her play that she forgets all about the potty; you've
been using one for years but this is all new to her -- and it sure doesn't seem
as important as whatever she's involved with at the moment. (Might be time to try
one of those potty watches made for kids.)
- Maybe she'd stop arguing if you acknowledged her upset with empathy, so she didn't
have to shout to feel heard. ("I hear how disappointed you are about this, Sweetie...")
- Maybe he needs your help to learn some better strategies to keep track of things
so he doesn't lose them.
When children act out, they're telling us -- in the only way they can at that
moment -- that they need our help. When we see things from our child's point
of view, misbehavior is suddenly comprehensible, forgivable. The blocks
to love melt away, and our love becomes unconditional.
4. Accept Feelings, Limit Behavior. Empathy
is unconditional love in action. Your child feels understood and accepted,
even while his actions are contained. Reconnect, empathize, and invite him
to trust you with the deeper feelings driving the behavior: “I won't let you hit me. You must be very upset. What’s going on, Sweetie?”
Listen. Breathe. Teach emotional intelligence: "She knocked over your tower and you worked so hard on it, you're mad!" "You're so disappointed that we can't stay and have dessert at the restaurant, huh?"
Remember, empathizing with his anger doesn't mean you endorse his hitting.
And acknowledging her strategy for meeting her need doesn't mean you have to meet
her need in the way she's asking. For instance, some sweetness from you might
meet the same need as that dessert.
And empathy doesn't mean you don't address the behavior. Later, when everyone
is calm, reinforce any limits as necessary and talk about other ways to handle
the situation: “I know it’s hard to stay calm when your sister knocks over your tower, but you know hitting hurts and it's not okay. Next time, what could you do instead of hitting her? Let's practice.”
5. Manage Your Anger. Unconditional love means the child
feels the parent's love without the requirement of the child doing anything at
all -- including behaving.
Did he hit his little sister? Did she scream "I hate you!" and slam
the door? Did he throw a toy at your head? Did she throw a fit in the restaurant?
It's hard to feel love for our kids when they're driving us crazy. So we
lose it. Of course, we know we love them, no matter what. But if you ask
the kid, he or she doesn't feel loved at that moment.
"Of course!" we might say. "We WANT her to know how mad we are!! She can feel our love later!"
But will your rage really teach your child the lesson you want to teach?
When kids misbehave, the most effective intervention is setting a calm, clear limit
and then loving our child through his upset. When we indulge our anger, we're
modeling inappropriate behavior for our child. And kids do misinterpret our
anger. At the best, they assume they're bad people who can never be good
enough. (At worst, you'd be amazed how many children secretly fear we'll
send them to jail or get a new kid.)
Heavy lifting? Yes. It does takes daily practice to build this kind of heart
muscle. But there's nothing as rewarding. These five habits will bring you and
your child closer, her behavior will improve dramatically, and for the rest of
her life, she will know that she's more than enough, exactly as she is. That's
being well and truly loved. Unconditionally.
This is Step 6 in our series
Ten Steps to Unconditional Love.
Want More? In the US, it's autumn, always a time of exciting new beginnings.
But wherever you are, it's always a good time to learn to love more! So we're
exploring each of the ten steps in more detail over the next few weeks.
Tomorrow: How To Love Unconditionally When You're Angry