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!
Are you looking to build closeness in your family? Do you want to improve communication with your children and spouse? Eating together as a family can help!
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are often rushed times for families. Parents and children grab their meals around a busy schedule of school, clubs, sports, and work - and they can miss a great opportunity to connect with each other. Sitting down for a meal can strengthen family connections, increase quality communication and emotional support, and reinforce healthy eating habits. The physical and emotional well-being of each individual can improve when we slow down to dine together. It's an endeavor well worth the extra effort!
So how can you squeeze in one more event?
Schedule family dinners on your calendar like you would any other activity or commitment. Intentionally setting aside time communicates to the whole family that this is something just as important as baseball or ballet practice. That also means your family needs to limit the distractions, too: no TV, phone, tablets, or computers for the duration of the half-hour or hour-long meal.
Plan the meal with your children. What a great opportunity to teach preparedness and organization! Planning (eating out or staying in), direction following (food preparation), and intentional food selection can all be done together. You’re teaching healthy eating habits and allowing children to practice good decision-making. It also helps little ones build self-esteem as they contribute to the family.
Share about your day. Encourage conversation and talk about highlights, events in your day, or something you’re looking forward to with your family. If you’re having difficulty getting the conversation going or you’re receiving a lot of one-word answers, try prompts like “something you’re grateful for” or “highs and lows (accomplishments and disappointments)" from your day.
Keep the conversation going. Asking specific questions can help; sometimes "How was your day?" can end a conversation before it begins. For example, you could ask "What was your favorite subject today?" or "What art pieces did you like at the museum?" Model being open to conversing pleasantly with your child, and ask follow-up questions to your children’s response so they feel listened to and understood. Keep yourself from using this time to discuss problems you have with your children – keep the conversation relaxing and pleasurable instead.
Family mealtimes don’t have to be daily. Consistency is key (weekly if possible!), but be flexible, too – you can change up the date, the time, and the place. You can eat at home or out, pack a picnic, or go out for breakfast.
It may seem foreign at first but keep it up and you’ll find the security and comfort it can provide will wear away any lingering resistance. The real meaning behind family mealtime is to practice togetherness and supporting each other. The more often you share that time, the more you’ll see the benefits.
We teach children a lot about how to get along with others, but sometimes we forget to talk about the secret ingredient for healthy relationships – empathy! Empathy is a complex idea to understand and practice as an adult, and putting it into simple words for younger children to comprehend can be even more difficult.
What even is empathy, anyway?
Empathy is our ability to recognize the feelings other people experience and to emotionally join them in that painful moment - not to fix it or dismiss it.
Why is empathy important?
Empathy is important for both individuals and societies. When we are aware of how others feel, it helps us to identify our own emotions. As a society, understanding our feelings and the feelings of others builds connections and makes us more inclined to help others. This is the reason humankind has managed to survive for so long.
Closer to home, in our relationships with our family members and friends, it is our sense of empathy that helps us to detect that something is wrong even though someone is saying everything is “fine.” And, it is also what makes our relationships rewarding, so that when someone we love or care about succeeds or has exciting news – we can feel their excitement and happiness. Just the same, sharing our happiness with others enhances our own joy!
So how to do we teach it to others?
A common method that adults use to build empathy in their children is remind them to "imagine being in their shoes." But expanding on this idea can help a child really become curious about other people's internal world. Asking your child follow-up questions helps them to explore their preconceived ideas about themselves or others.
For example, if your child remarks on a homeless person being "gross," instead of reacting in anger or simply telling them to "be nice," you could gently ask them to explore with you the idea about what it would be like for a person who didn't have a nice, warm home to go to. You could encourage them to think about how hard it would be to go without a shower or a meal for a long time. You could ask them what they would do to stay warm and dry during a rain or snow storm. You can encourage your child to think more deeply by asking them questions and engaging them in a non-judgmental dialogue.
Another example of how to be empathetic to someone you know personally is demonstrated in the video below.
Author Brene Brown put together an excellent video about empathy. It's a cartoon, and it may be appropriate to watch with some children. This can also be a way to engage your child in dialogue about being empathetic to others. Watch it below and consider how you can best engage your child in meaningful dialogues - or simply just as a refresher for yourself about how to build more meaningful connections to others.
What is “Play Therapy?”
We know that talk therapy is an effective form of treatment for adults. However, children don't always benefit from conventional talk therapy the way adults do – especially young children. As you can imagine, children lack the vocabulary and mature brain development that adults have, which can lead them to have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding their feelings.
In order to better meet the unique needs children have for therapeutic engagement, researchers and clinicians teamed up to create “Play Therapy,” which is an empirically supported model of therapy founded on principles and tenets of developmental child therapy theory. In practice, your play therapist creates an open, trusting, and supportive relationship with your child, and your child (through art, music, and play) shares their “world” with the therapist – their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In a counseling office, toys, games and activities are used to represent words and play therapy clinicians are trained to engage in with the child to understand what they have difficulty saying with words. Children and therapists alike can use dolls, puppets, paints, or other toys to allow children the opportunity to work through, heal, and move past the difficult times in their lives.
With the therapeutic relationship established and in a supportive environment, your play therapist validates your child’s experiences while simultaneously fostering your child’s insight and awareness, which culminates in the development of new skills, adaptive coping strategies, and more collaborative relationships with the people in your child’s life.
Who can provide play therapy for my child?
As with all therapies, only a trained professional should be providing this service. Therapists with the "Registered Play Therapist" or "RPT" credential has gone through additional and extensive training to become certified by the Association for Play Therapy.
How do I pick a therapist?
Therapists have many different levels of education and expertise. If you're seeking a mental health professional for yourself or your child, you may want to ask the following questions to be able to determine if this is a good fit for your family:
- What training have you received to be a mental health professional?
- Have you ever received formal education regarding working with children?
- Have you ever received formal education on play therapy? Are you a Registered Play Therapist?
When does a child need therapy?
One of the hardest things about being a parent is knowing when to find help for your child. Children often do not know themselves that they need help or how to ask for it. Instead, as children have trouble adapting to changes in their life, in their relationships, or in themselves, they might start “acting out” in a way that can be seen in their behaviors and emotions. At school, this might look like a lack of motivation, falling grades, or difficulty in their relationships with their friends or teachers. At home, your child might appear withdrawn or more argumentative. Generally, if you or your child's teacher or pediatrician is concerned about your child, play therapy might be appropriate for your family.
How to I talk to my child about play therapy?
It's a wonderful idea to prepare your child for play therapy. You can let them know that they will be coming each week to play in the playroom with an adult who wants to help them learn how to take care of their feelings. You can reassure them that it can help children to have someone special to talk and play with.
What information should I tell the therapist to help make treatment effective?
Therapists understand that you, the parent, are the expert in regard to your child. Your therapist is a partner in helping your child's emotional health. In this collaborative relationship, it is very important for you to report events to the therapist directly. Even if you're not sure that an event in question is pertinent to counseling, it's always a good idea to call the therapist and talk out the event.
Can I ask my child about his or her therapy session?
It can be tempting to ask your child "what they learned" immediately after session. However, it is important to maintain your child’s privacy around their sessions, and your therapist will work with you to find out what kind of information should and should not be shared after sessions. Of course, your child’s safety is your therapist’s number one concern, and so parents will always be informed by the therapist if anything came up in session relating to the child’s safety or any other vital information.