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.)
The Power Of Words
One angry word from you can hurt your child—for life.
“Your sister never loses her things—she appreciates what she gets!”
“When are you going to remember what I tell you finally?”
How would you feel if you heard that?
Would you be inclined to confide in your dad again? Would you feel that you could 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?
Separating The Upsetting Behavior From The Child Himself
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 this pretty much.
And so you would naturally conclude that because this is so, your children MUST intuitively understand you love them unconditionally—beyond any upset at the moment.
But this is not so.
It’s not even valid for adults. If your partner is harsh and unkind to you, do you feel loved at that moment? Do you want to be close to them? What do you think 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 wrong with your relationship?
As adults, we develop the capacity to see that just because someone is mad at us doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us or that we’re not loved.
Children can’t do that—especially not when the anger comes 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 terrible. 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.
Unconditional Love: How Children Know They Are Truly Loved
They think that even when they yell or punish their kids, the child would still believe 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 cannot conceptualize that just because you’re upset with them at 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 at 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.
A Small Change In Your Words Makes All The Difference To Your Child’s Sense Of Being Loved
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 angry 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 you lost your new sweatshirt again, 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 someplace 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 forgetting something?
Remember, one way to show unconditional love is to distinguish 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 empathized 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.
Letting Them Know They’re Loved—Even When You’re Angry As All Hell
You may be thinking, “Sure, this makes plenty of sense to me, but what do I do when my child has misbehaved, or they just won’t listen—and they’ve 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 terrible 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!
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 your love is always there, even when he messes up. And that’s how he knows about 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 risky business.
That is why distinguishing between behavior and the child is so important:
“I am not mad at you; I am just mad at what you did.”
by Shelly Lefkoe