Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

All You Need Is Love (and a little practice)

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well” -- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

We all know that every child deserves unconditional love from his or her parents. So the question is, when we're disappointed in our kids, when we're angry at them, do we withdraw our love? Most parents would say "Of course not! They know I love them. I'm just mad right now! How will they know I'm serious if I don't get angry?"  

But ask any kid, and they'll tell you that when Mom or Dad is angry, the child fears she's no longer loved. They think they've disappointed us. Instead of being confident that we love them no matter what, they begin to worry that there must be something wrong with them, that they keep messing up, that they can't inspire us to love them.

Those feelings are painful for any child. So painful that if they happen often enough, the child begins to build up armor against them. Unfortunately, that armor also defends against the parent, and the child hardens his heart to the parent. They begin to act like they don't care. Since our influence with our kids comes from our relationship with them, the child begins to cooperate less and less, and we feel that we can't get through to them. The child starts looking for love in all the wrong places (this is one of the sources of peer group pressure and risky behavior in the preteen and teen years).

When children grow up with conventional parenting, this rift shows up by the preteen years and worsens during the teen years. We usually assume that this is because as kids get older, they naturally develop an attitude. But it doesn't have to be that way. The preteen and teen years can be wonderful. Yes, really! It depends on how we parent.

This scenario isn't what any of us want for our children. But parents are only human. We aren't TRYING to make them feel unloved or not good enough. We just want them to behave and cooperate, especially when it's something we've told them a thousand times! Naturally, we get angry!

So how do we as parents insure that our child still feels our unconditional love even when we get angry, even when we need to correct their behavior? The secret is managing our anger so we stay connected with the child while we set limits. 

Not easy, right? But do-able. And luckily, it gets easier with practice. Here are your three strategies to stay connected while you set limits.

1. Set limits before you lose your temper, so you can keep your sense of humor.

Remember that it's your kid's job to test the limits. Yes, over and over. That's nothing to get irritated about. It's your job to lovingly, repeatedly, hold your limits so you give your child what they need, not necessarily what they want -- without making them feel like a bad person. You don't have to be angry to set limits. In fact, your child is more likely to develop self-discipline if you set limits with a lighter touch, because he's more likely to "own" your limit instead of rebelling against it. (That's the "self" in self-discipline.)

2. Look for solutions rather than blame.

If your first response is to figure out whose fault it is, kids will always find reasons why it wasn't their fault. If you don't care about fault but instead look for solutions that work for everyone, your child will become an expert in finding win-win solutions. She'll be more likely to take responsibility, too.

The most important part of focusing on solutions is preventive maintenance. For instance, every child needs a good session of belly laughter every day, to help them off-load stress. Every child needs one-on-one time with at least one parent every single day, where they get the tangible evidence that they're adored. Every child needs routines that insure sufficient sleep. Every child needs to feel understood, even when you don't agree with them, and a chance to cry when life feels sad or painful (which is a regular occurrence for children.) When children don't get the preventive maintenance they need, you can't blame them for ending up in the breakdown lane.

3. When something does go wrong, stop, drop and breathe. Then, choose loving guidance over revenge.

Why would you ever choose revenge? Actually, if we're honest with ourselves, punishment is always partly about revenge. That's why it makes the parent feel better, at least temporarily! Research shows that punishment does NOT actually improve the child's behavior.

But how can you teach the lessons your child needs to learn, without punishing? Loving guidance, which is much more effective.

Start by empathizing with your child about why they behaved badly. Yes, really! They had a reason. Then, once they feel understood, tell them that you understand AND that behavior is off-limits AND they'll need to make a repair. Like this:

  • Point out the cost of her actions, being careful not to shame or blame. "When you said that to your sister, it really hurt her feelings.... I wonder if it made her feel not as close to you."
  • Ask your child what she can do to repair the damage. "I wonder what you could you do to make things better with your sister?"
  • Resist the urge to punish or force an apology. Instead, empower your child to see that she can repair her mistakes. "You know we always clean up our own messes, right, like spilled milk? This is just a different kind of mess. I know you'll think of just the right thing to make things better with your sister.... I can't wait to see what it is."

Just remember that while a repair is required, it's her choice what to do. That removes the element of shame and helps her become the hero in her story, instead of the bad kid. Just as with matter-of-factly cleaning up the spilled milk, the process of cleaning up her messes will teach her that she doesn't want to cause those hurts to begin with. 

Of course, you have to be able to manage your own anger to pull this off. That's why we so often focus on parental self-regulation in these posts. To start, why not forgive yourself for being human and give yourself some of that unconditional love? You need and deserve it as much as your child does.



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