By Alyssa Strenger, PsyD
How do you love your children in such a way that their connection to you remains strong as they grow and develop? Here are three ways to love children well.
Have reflective conversations. Help them to be curious about their own thoughts and feelings, and of those belonging to others. Storytelling is an excellent way to participate in this activity together. Think about all of the times you have asked, “How was your day?” and in response all you get is “fine.” Instead, try telling a story about the memories of their day and what they might have thought or felt during the day. Young children may need you to tell more of the story and provide possibilities for how they felt (e.g. “You were frustrated before you took your nap today because you had to stop playing. After you woke up, you were rested and able to play again, you felt happy!”) Older children/teens may benefit from supportive questions such as “What did your friend say that left you feeling sad?” Over time, reflective conversations will lead to increased compassion and empathy, letting children know you are curious about their thoughts and feelings and enjoy knowing them.
Provide consistent soothing and reassurance. As a parent, you have an unparalleled ability to comfort your offspring. You know that cry or scream, “Daddy! Mommy! Help me!” and can likely pick it out in a crowd. Soothing and providing reassurance is probably quite instinctual and not something you often think about. It gets more difficult when your little (or big!) ones need comfort after a rupture in their relationship with you. Now if you are both calm (enough) then you can listen as needs and feelings are shared; each of you can take responsibility for your part in the conflict and can discuss new ways of handling the problem in the future. If, on the other hand, you are both upset it may be necessary to take a moment to step away, breathe, count to ten, punch a pillow, etc. before you can talk about what happened. Children need you to show them that, no matter how you feel in the moment, your love for them will continue to exist.
Delight in their very beings! Loving, accepting, and valuing your children for who they are is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. And research shows we can aspire to do this only about 70% of the time (no need to be perfect here, just good enough)! “Enjoying your child and sharing in the awe of discovering what it means to be alive, to be a person in a wondrous world, is crucial for the development of your child’s positive sense of self” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). Being with your children means that you recognize changes in their internal state as you notice their facial expression or tone of voice change. You let them know their feelings, be they anger, sadness, joy, etc. are important and deserve your full attention…most of the time (remember, 100% is not required!). Finally, delight is a primary component of developing the bond that connects them to you forever, and reminding them of the compassionate, unconditional, and deep love you have for your dear ones.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (2000)
Raising a Secure Child by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell (2017)
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell (2003)