We all have an innate need to feel loved – it’s part of our hardwiring! Research on neuroscience by Dr. Dan Siegel confirms that the desire for connection and affection is a biological survival trait, but it’s also our experiences and history of feeling loved and appreciated which lay the foundation for how we view ourselves and the world. Our brains create shortcuts: automatic beliefs about ourselves based on our repeated experiences. So how do we teach kids to have the automatic belief that they are lovable?
Here are some suggestions:
Greet them with excitement. It can be so easy for pick-up and drop-offs to become simply a task to complete. With children coming and going so readily, it’s easy to forget to greet them with warmth. However, actively choosing to greet your child with excitement can change the atmosphere of the whole encounter. When it’s first thing in the morning, saying something positive like “I’m so happy to see you,” can help build a child up; the opposite would be to acknowledge them with criticism or disinterest like “You’re not even dressed, you can’t wear pajamas to school!” Greeting children with love and excitement can make a big difference to your child.
Eye contact. It’s easy to get in the habit of listening without looking at the person talking, but eye contact can help you recognize what your child is thinking and feeling through activation of your mirror neurons. It allows children to feel heard and understood in a more substantial way than when you’re absent-mindedly listening while doing other tasks.
Physical affection. Often it can be hard for parents to show physical affection to their children, especially if they were never given affectionate touch when they were kids. But safe human touch is very significant when it comes to healthy development, so even quickly and gently rubbing your child’s arm, shoulders, or back can express warmth and love.
Don’t withhold praise or affection. The old saying is true: kids that need love ask for it in the most unloving ways. It’s inevitable that kids will let you down as they explore their boundaries and practice decision-making. But it’s important for parents to remember that after children have gotten in trouble, they should not withhold praise, attention, or affection. Be careful to make sure that when you convey to your child that you don’t approve of their behavior, that you still love them regardless.
Share a meal together. Quality time, either one-on-one or with the rest of your family, can be so important to fostering loving relationships. Talking about your day, asking about friendships, and engaging with each other can benefit the health of your relationship.
Practice focused attention. With so many distractions in our busy world, it can be easy to get sucked into the television, tablet, or smartphone. Practicing focused attention is when you make sure that those distractions aren’t around to steal the show. Watching TV as a family can be nice, but be careful to have intentionally quiet and distraction-free quality time as well, where you engage thoughtfully and actively listen to each other.
Celebrate together. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, and celebrations can come and go in a flash. If you’ve missed a significant event, make sure that you to celebrate as soon as possible so that the child being celebrated feels remembered and loved. You may miss the first celebration – but your attention during the second celebration is just as important.
Learn about their interests. Kids have so many diverse and changing interests but it’s important that you understand what they are. If you can engage with them articulately and in depth about topics they like, the message they receive is that they matter. Doing a little research into their interests can mean the world to them.
Tell them. It’s easy to think that kids “just know” that you love them, but hearing you actually say it is one of the most straightforward messages they could receive. Tell them early and tell them often; kids can often feel they’ve lost your love after they’ve been corrected or disappointed you, so remind them gently that that isn’t the case.
These little ways of showing love to kids can add up to a lot of positive feelings about themselves. If we consistently and repeatedly give our children experiences which assure them that they are loved, they have higher self-esteem, higher self-efficacy, and learn how to create safe and loving interpersonal relationships themselves in the future. Practice filling them up with love, and soon they’ll have plenty to give out themselves!