Imagine you are a child, and you just lost your brand-new sweatshirt.
You come home and tell your father, and all hell breaks loose:
“You would lose your head if it wasn’t tied to your body!” (That’s actually what my dad would say.)
“Your sister never loses her things—she appreciates what she gets!”
“When are you going to finally remember what I tell you?”
How would you feel if you heard that?
Would you be inclined to confide in your dad again? Would you feel that you could really tell your parents anything—even if you felt bad about it yourself?
Or would you keep things to yourself to avoid his rage?
What would you think about yourself?
Would you think you were a smart kid, or would you conclude that you should have known better—and there must be something wrong with you that you didn’t?
Here’s a heart wrenching one:
Would this interaction make you feel loved or unloved?
As a parent, you know how much you do for your child.
You’ve been with them from the very beginning, and you’ve likely never loved nor cared for anyone quite this much.
And so you would naturally conclude that because this is so, your children MUST intuitively understand you love them unconditionally—beyond any upset in the moment.
But this is just not so.
It’s not even true for adults. If your partner is harsh and unkind to you, do you feel loved in that moment? Do you want to be close to him or her? How do you feel about yourself?
More specifically, if you burn dinner and your spouse lashes out at you for not having a brain and not being able to follow directions, do you chalk it up to him having a bad day, or do you start to worry something’s really wrong with your relationship?
As adults, we develop the capacity to see that just because someone is mad at us, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us, or that we’re not loved.
Children just can’t do that—especially not when the anger is coming from the people they form their identities from. When you lash out at a child, she has no way of distinguishing her behavior from herself—unless you tell her.
And so she will conclude that you must be angry because SHE’S bad. This is a very damaging belief for a child to internalize, and it can set her up to tolerate abusive behavior in the future.
Let me tell you more about how children understand unconditional love so you can see what I mean—and learn what it takes for a child to feel completely loved.
How do you know your children feel loved unconditionally?
When I ask parents this question in my workshops, virtually every hand goes up and every parent says:
“Of course my children know that!”
They think that even when they yell or punish their kids, the child would still have the concept that they are loved overall—no matter what they do.
But the reality is that children do not have the concept of unconditional love.
This is a concept human beings develop much later, when they gain self-awareness and experience. They are not able to conceptualize that just because you’re upset with them in this moment, it does not mean your love has gone away.
If children experience getting love and attention and acknowledgment only when they do and say specific things, they would conclude: what makes me good enough or what makes me lovable is when I “dot, dot, dot,” and they will experience that they are not okay except when they do those specific things.
As such, they DO NOT feel loved when you show disappointment and displeasure in them.
When you yell at them or walk away angry, it looks to a child like you are withdrawing your love.
If they are looking at your face, and you are angry, they don’t feel loved in that moment. And they don’t feel loved if you hit or scream at them and then turn around and tell them you love them.
It’s so important to tell kids that you love them and that you love them unconditionally.
And you do this by telling them that you are never mad at them—you are mad at what they did.
You are upset about the behavior—not the child. Let’s go back to the sweatshirt scenario to show what I mean.
Imagine again you lost your new sweatshirt and you come home and tell dad. This time, he replies like this:
“Sweetie, I know it is hard for you to keep track of your things. You know, I lose things from time to time too. But let’s see if you and I can sit down and brainstorm a way for you to keep track of your things, because I am not willing to keep buying you things if you keep losing them. Maybe before you leave some place next time, you could do a nose-to-toes exercise and go through your whole body and see if you might have forgotten anything. Do you have any ideas?”
Would you feel loved or unloved if you were spoken to this way—especially after you forgot something?
Remember, one way to show unconditional love is to make a distinction between being upset with what the child did and being upset with them.
As you can see in the example above, dad let her know that he was not judging her. He empathised with her and didn’t talk down to her. In this sense, he didn’t devalue her. But he also sent a clear message that she needed to remember to bring her stuff home.
This type of compassionate conversation—combined with appropriate consequences if she keeps forgetting—is a powerful motivator for a child while allowing her to feel unconditionally loved.
You may be thinking, “Sure, this makes plenty of sense to me, but what do I do when my child has behaved badly or they just won’t listen—and they’ve really pushed me to my loving limits?”
The reality is that even though you may know you love your child, you’re not in the experience of loving them when you’re angry.
And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent—it just means you’re normal. But what you don’t want is to let your anger drive your relationship with your child and what he believes about himself.
So what do you do?
As I discovered: practice!
In Module 5 of Parenting That Empowers, I’ll teach you specific tools and scripts you can use in the heat of the moment to calm yourself down and get your thoughts together BEFORE you say something that could lead to potential damage now and in the future.
I’ll give you plenty of examples and role-play scenarios so you can get a feel for how to do all this ahead of time. That means that when your child does something that upsets you—and she will!—you’ll be able to respond rather than react.
You will train yourself to let love—not anger—lead your parenting. You will naturally learn how to call a child out on his behavior in a way that doesn’t take away from his feelings of being loved.
He will learn that even when he messes up, your love is always there. And that’s how he learns about unconditional love.
What’s more, I’ll teach you how to make your child feel so safe and loved, that you are the first and only person he turns to when he needs to fess up about something—or talk about anything.Give The Gift Of Unconditional Love
It’s the belief in being unconditionally loved that will cause your child to feel ultimate safety in your relationship—and cause her to grow up to create healthy adult relationships in the future.
P.S. When a young child feels unloved by the person on whom their survival depends, that is a perceived threat to their survival—and that is scary business.
That is why distinguishing between behavior and the child is so important:
“I am not mad you, I am just mad at what you did.”Get More Tips