Unconditional love

by Kaye Wilson on May 12, 2020

In a lot of what I do as a parent coach, the emphasis is on changing behavior–parents come to me because their child is doing something they don’t like, and they want to know how to make it stop!

With the focus on behavior, it’s easy to overlook the importance of unconditional love. Of course, parents love their children or they wouldn’t be seeking ways to be better parents, but it’s important that we make sure we love them unconditionally–we have to separate the child from the behavior and what it may reflect about us, and make sure they never question our love.

This can be tricky. How do we communicate the fact that certain behavior is not acceptable, but that we love our child no matter what she does? Won’t that be a mixed message, more confusing than helpful?

This possibility is why many people–including teachers, counselors, and some parenting experts–object to the use of negative consequences, and certainly any idea of “punishment”. Their thinking is that negative consequences will make the child believe she is unloved when she does certain things, and that she will have to behave in certain ways in order to gain our approval and love.

But it all depends on how you handle things. If the only interactions you ever have with your child occur when she misbehaves, then of course this would be a big problem! But the fact is that MOST of your interactions with your child have nothing to do with misbehavior!

Think about it: think about all the snuggles, the shared treats, the trips to the park, the bedtime stories, songs, and prayers; think about the hours you aren’t even with your child: when she is at school, when you are working around the house and she’s playing, when she’s sitting asleep inĀ  her carseat–this is how most of your time with your child is spent.

We forget so much of this. We dwell on the times when we’ve had to deal with misbehavior for two reasons: 1-It really bothers us and disrupts our day, and 2-We very often don’t handle it well–we wear ourselves out with nagging and threatening, and eventually lose our temper and yell.

Unfortunately, the bad feelings that come with this tend to hang over us like a black cloud for a good while afterwards. We find ourselves sighing and scowling and snapping at our child out of irritation with ourselves and our short temper, even after the event has passed. Or, we feel guilty and bend over backward to compensate.

But you don’t stop loving your child when you tell her how to behave. Gentle but firm correction is, itself, an expression of love! Our problem is we wait too long to do it, then end up frustrated, and the pattern repeats.

The most effective way to prevent your child getting the message that your love is based on her performance is “clean” discipline: clear instructions, consistent follow-up. You must correct, so be sure to do it quickly, without agonizing over it or waiting until you are at your wits’ end.

When you mess up (and we all do!) shore up that foundation of unconditional love by doing the following:

  • Enjoy your child: laughing together, trips to the park, bedtime stories, singing children’s songs, hugs and snuggles, and all the rest. Remember these times throughout your day, and talk about them with your child as you tuck her in at night.
  • Tell your child how much you love her, many times throughout the day. Make sure you say you love her just because she is yours, not because she’s pretty, or just when she’s “good”
  • Commend her for the strengths you see in her–is she learning to be patient, or persistent? Is she learning to overcome frustration? Is she learning new skills like dressing herself or tying her shoes, or listening and obeying? Tell her you see her hard work and are proud of how she is growing!
  • Avoid telling her she is “awesome” or other general, over-the-top words. Instead, be specific–“I love the colors you chose for that picture!” or “I can tell you worked hard to make your bed look very neat!”
  • Don’t talk about her misbehavior around other people, especially if she is able to hear you. Don’t make her and her behavior a joke, make fun of her to others, or compare her to others–especially siblings!–treat her as you would want to be treated.
  • Make sure she knows exactly what you expect of her–teach her how to behave in all the situations you’ll encounter in your day. When she veers off course, gently but firmly correct her. It’s when she doesn’t know what you expect (either because you haven’t told her, or haven’t told her clearly) that she is most likely to behave in ways that are disruptive or inappropriate–and that you are most likely to lose your temper and do or say something you will later regret.
  • Remember–she is a child. She is vulnerable. It may seem as though her misbehavior is designed to upset you (and sometimes it might be!) but you are her mother, you are her father–be gentle, with loving looks and tender hugs.

Unconditional love is the foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship, but sometimes we don’t communicate it very well to our children. Make sure they know they are completely loved, every single day, and that your correction of them is just another way you show this.




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