Dr. Laura Markham
“Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds. You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom.” – Anonymous
Unconditional love isn’t just what we feel. It’s what the object of our love feels: love without strings attached. That means our child doesn’t have to be, or do, anything in particular to earn our love. We love her exactly as she is.
A tall order, since most of us have a little list of things we want “fixed” in our child.
“If only he’d be nicer to his sister….When will she use the potty?…. He’s so timid and needy…I just want her to sleep through the night… He’s great, but I would have loved a daughter this time….She argues with everything I say; why does she have to be so strong-willed?…Why does he lose everything?! He drives me crazy!”
It’s true, our children can drive us crazy. But can you imagine feeling like you just aren’t good enough, the way you are? That’s not what any of us want for our child. And the paradox is, it’s hard for any of us to change when we feel defensive. That goes doubly for a child, who feels more threatened by our disapproval. When your child feels unconditionally loved, he’s more likely to blossom. And you’re more likely to see change.
So what can you do to accept your child unconditionally? Start with these five habits.
1. Appreciate your child’s “weaknesses.” Everyone has traits that take special effort to manage. But it gets easier if you remember that human “weaknesses” can be understood as the flip side of our strengths. For instance, a child might be incredibly stubborn, arguing with her parents to get what she wants until she simply wears them down. While that trait is hard to live with, the flip side of the trait is dogged persistence. This is the kind of persistence that will serve this child well if she grows up to be a scientist, a novelist, and attorney…. indeed, almost any profession would be served by such persistence.
If this is our child, we can help her understand that her persistence is an asset, but can also drive others crazy and make them angry at her. She needs to learn to modulate it and use it, rather than letting it control her. Helping children to know themselves well and to manage themselves to best meet their overall goals is one of the most helpful gifts any parent can give a child.
2. Grieve. Maybe you wanted a boy but you got a girl. Maybe you wanted a quiet, cooperative child but you got an exuberant live wire. Maybe your child has special challenges that make parenting extra tough. Maybe you’re just sorry she got that tangly curly mop instead of your silken mane. 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. The solution is to let yourself feel those feelings, and grieve. Let it go. Grief burns, but it cleanses the psyche and helps us make peace with what is. From there, we can embrace our actual child, not some idea of who he or she should be.
3. See your child’s “faults” from your child’s point of view. 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 hear how disappointed you are about this, Sweetie…”)
- 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.
4. 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: “I won’t let you hit me. You must be very upset. What’s going on, Sweetie?”
Listen. Breathe. Teach emotional intelligence: “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 it’s not okay. Next time, what could you do instead of hitting her? Let’s practice.”
5. Manage Your Anger. Unconditional love means the child feels the parent’s love without the requirement of the child doing anything at all — including behaving.
Did he hit his little sister? Did she scream “I hate you!” and slam the door? Did he throw a toy at your head? Did she throw a fit in the restaurant? It’s hard to feel love for our kids when they’re driving us crazy. So we lose it. Of course, we know we love them, no matter what. But if you ask the kid, he or she doesn’t feel loved at that moment.
“Of course!” we might say. “We WANT her to know how mad we are!! She can feel our love later!”
But will your rage really teach your child the lesson you want to teach? When kids misbehave, the most effective intervention is setting a calm, clear limit and then loving our child through his upset. When we indulge our anger, we’re modeling inappropriate behavior for our child. And kids do misinterpret our anger. At the best, they assume they’re bad people who can never be good enough. (At worst, you’d be amazed how many children secretly fear we’ll send them to jail or get a new kid.)
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.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.