"Unconditional love is love without requiring anything in return--love no matter what. Love never fails." - Heather Forbes
We all know that children need unconditional love. And most parents DO love their children without reservation. After all, no matter how irritated we get with them, we know that we would throw ourselves in front of a bus to save our child's life.
The problem is that unconditional love isn't just what we feel. It's what the object of our love feels.
Does your child know that she's lovable, exactly as she is? That she isn't expected to be perfect? That her anger, disappointment, frustration and sadness are just part of being human, and that she can count on you to help her learn to manage those feelings so she doesn't have to act on them? That she doesn't have to be, or do, anything in particular to earn our love?
You may be wondering how you teach your child those things. The answer is easy, but oh so difficult. You love her unconditionally. Even -- especially -- when she's driving you crazy.
When you can:
- Stay lovingly connected to him even as you set limits on his behavior:
He learns that he's not a bad person, just human.
- Resist lashing out at him even when you're "justifiably" angry:
He learns from your modeling how to regulate his emotions.
- Remember to empathize as you set limits, so he WANTS to follow them:
He learns self-discipline.
- Accept that he's an immature human who naturally makes mistakes:
He learns that mistakes are part of growing
, and he can keep trying to improve.
- Apologize when you mess up (because we all do!):
He learns to clean up his own messes, including emotional ones.
- Accept him for who he is without comparing him to others, and help him be his best self:
He learns that he's more than enough, exactly as he is.
Tall order? Yes. Here are your 5 guiding strategies.
1. 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: “You must be very upset to speak to me like that. What’s going on, Sweetie?”
Listen. Breathe. Teach emotional intelligence while you set limits:
- "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 sisters are for loving, not hitting. Next time, what could you do instead of hitting her? Let's practice.”
2. Walk in your child's shoes.
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'm so sorry.... I hear how disappointed you are about this.")
- 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.
3. Appreciate the child you have, rather than wanting to make her into someone else.
Imagine that your child is a flower, but you don't get to choose what kind. Your job is to nurture that flower with the environment that will help it blossom.
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.
Your delight in your child might be the most important factor in his development. Every child needs to be explicitly appreciated for who he is, daily. If you find that hard, take some time to process your grief and resentment about not getting the child you wanted. You're allowed to have those feelings -- but you need to take responsibility to work them through, so you can appreciate the child you have.
Then, remind yourself that when a plant is wilting, you don't yell at it to straighten up. You get busy and provide more fertilizer, more sunshine, a more spacious pot. Your child will only thrive if you see her positively, so she can see herself positively.
4. Use empathy, connection, and repair -- rather than punishing.
All punishment withdraws love from the child. If we hurt the child physically, obviously the child does not feel loved at that moment, no matter what we tell him. Even timeouts and parent-imposed consequences are seen by the child for what they are: intentionally causing emotional pain to force the child to comply. Any time a human feels that another human is intentionally causing them pain, they don't feel loved.
A great deal of research shows that children who are disciplined with love withdrawal techniques, including timeout, misbehave more. The lesson is not lost on the child. We could, at any time, stop loving them altogether. There is no reason to punish, and every reason not to. (See footnote)
We only punish because we don't know what else to do. But there are thousands of families where children are never punished. Sure, their parents set limits. They spend a lot of time emotion-coaching and connecting. And they insist that their child repair, whether what's broken is an object or a relationship. Those children not only "behave," they seem to develop emotional intelligence and morality earlier than other children.
5. Trust that once your child feels unconditionally loved, she will be able to change her behavior.
What if your child has crossed the line? Be brave. Don't give in to your fear. Don't give up on her. Go get her and bring her back into the embrace of your family. She's disconnected right now, but when you love her unconditionally, you strengthen her belief in her own goodness, and help her grow into your trust.
Because the healing miracle of unconditional love is that there is no line. There is only love.
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.
Wondering how you can love unconditionally when you're so angry you want to scream?
That's our next post: How To Love Unconditionally When You're Angry.
Today is Step 6 of Ten Steps to Unconditional Love: 5 Secrets to Love Your Child Unconditionally
This series is designed to heal our ability to love unconditionally, so we can give our children the unconditional love they need. The first five steps were:
1. Alfie Kohn, in his book Unconditional Parenting, cites numerous studies on the negative effects of timeout and other love-withdrawal techniques on children's moral and psychological development, including the effect on morality and emotional intelligence. See also the article on Timeouts on this website.