Forget about an apple a day keeping the medical doctor away.
If you want to do something to ensure your kids experience backed-by-research benefits like:
· Higher self esteem
· Better parent-child communication
· Improved academic performance
· Fewer psychological and behavior problems and
· Better coping skills…
be sure to add copious amounts of affection and acceptance to the healthy foodstuffs you dole out daily.
Need another reason? Parental warmth, affection and acceptance not only foster your child’s psychological development while they’re under your roof, it also impacts the quality of loving relationships they will have as adults.
Learning to “love and be loved” is a fundamental part of being human for all of us. From it comes profound purpose for our lives. It’s what gives us the capacity to go out into the world, confident in our ability to navigate and perhaps even mitigate the complexities of daily life through our personal and professional contributions. For that, we need a secure attachment bond.
Let’s start at the beginning….
Early Attachment – Why it Matters
From the moment of birth, the attachment bond a child develops with the primary caregiver (usually, but not always, the mother) becomes their framework for emotional wellbeing.
Absolutely key to healthy development, the attachment bond is essentially a child's ability to feel responded to by the parent or caregiver. When a child's needs are consistently met at the early stages of life, parent and child grow to trust the other. A secure attachment based on that feeling is what enables kids to separate and differentiate when developmentally appropriate.
Without it, kids can develop what’s called “learned helplessness,” which makes them (as children and later, without intervention, as adults) believe that adverse outcomes are not only to be expected, but also are not controllable or changeable by their own agency.
I can’t overstate how critical parental affection and acceptance are for helping your children develop a secure attachment. Making them feel important, special and cared about – warts and all – is like dressing them in a Teflon® suit that makes it is safe to experiment, to express themselves and to imagine their potential.
Best yet, even when those experiments fail…
that creative expression doesn't merit an audience beyond the living room…
or their ideas to save the world are wildly immature and impractical…
kids with a secure attachment know intrinsically they are still OK – great, even! Their worth and value isn’t defined by what they “do.” It’s their existential “being” that makes them worthy of their parents’ – and others’ – love.
What Does Affection and Acceptance Look Like?
Affection needs to be both broadly defined and responsive to your particular children’s needs and preferences.
Mine? All three love and appreciate physical affection. But not every family – or every kid in every family – is the cuddly type. Be aware of the differences and uniqueness of each of your children. Give them warmth and affection that is meaningful to them – not that which comes easiest to you.
While hugs, kisses and reassuring pats on the back are certainly meaningful demonstrations of love, there are a lot of non-physical actions that express parental love:
· Relax on the couch and read or watch TV together
· Sit with them and talk about their day (be sure you’re focus is on them, not on prepping dinner)
· Build or create something together like a puzzle or model
· Put a love note in a lunchbox or surprise them with a note on the bathroom mirror that they’ll see as soon as they get up
· Acknowledge the characteristics that make them unique – not just those that replicate traits you like about yourself
· When kids leave for overnight camp or college, hide small gifts and notes in their luggage
· Thank them – even when they’re just doing their chores
· Tell them, “I’m looking forward to seeing you after school,” so they come to know you think of them even when they’re not around
Parental warmth and affection is an all-the-time activity, NOT JUST WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE IT. (Excuse the virtual screaming, but this is important.)
We all get angry and frustrated with our kids, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. But there is never a time when it’s appropriate for a parent to withhold love and acceptance from a child. We need to model that it’s possible to both love our children and be furious with them.
Angry kids often say, “I hate you!” to their parents. Rather than hurling a similar invective, parents need to say, “I understand. I may not like the behaviors I’m seeing, but I still love you.”
If you have teens, you may have noticed that they’ve become less amenable to affection – particularly from the opposite sex parent. But I promise you that teens don’t age out of the need for your warmth and affection. This is especially true when they act in ways that make them hard to love. So the next time your sullen and sarcastic teen starts to steal out the door after a fight, remember to say, “I love you, be safe.” Those moments matter.
No parent is immune to lapses on occasion. In Chicago Tribune columnist’s Heidi Stevens’ recent essay, she admits she’d noticed that the easy delight she’d expressed when her kids were little ones was starting to become “more connected to performance” now that were school-aged. Her personal pledge to “light up” every time she sees her kids is something all of us can emulate.
Why Modeling Adult Affection and Care Matters
Think back to when you were a child. Do you remember seeing your parents hug and kiss, crack one another up, or maybe even dance together? On the surface, you may have felt anything from embarrassment to delight, but at a deeper level seeing one’s parents express affection for one another makes kids feel safe and loved.
Unbeknownst to you – and maybe even to your parents – they were also modeling what to aspire to when it comes to adult relationships.
Here’s the thing: It’s easy for parents to forget that it only works if we model it. We have an assumed parity regarding roles and responsibilities (e.g., you cook, I clean). “Thanks, dear,” is understood. But kids aren’t privy to your adult conversations when you divvy up chores…or the bedtime chats when you take time to connect. So if kids don't hear or witness expressions of appreciation and love between their parents, they either presume they don’t happen – or that they aren’t central to a healthy relationship.
That’s why the tacit must become explicit.
Here’s extra incentive.
Children grow up to treat their partners as they saw their parents treat one another. If we’re inattentive, dismissive or non-affectionate to our mates – intentional or not – that becomes our kids’ blueprint of what to expect when they partner up. And who wants that for their children? No one I know.
So what is appropriate behavior for parents to model?
· Stop what you’re doing and greet your partner when she or he walks in the door
· Display affection (hugs, kisses, even just a big smile)
· Be courteous to one another; say “Please” and “Thank you”
· Let your kids hear you acknowledge one another’s successes
· Express empathy when a parent has had a rough day
· Communicate your appreciation for your partner’s small kindnesses in front of the kids
Still not convinced? Remember, the goal of parents is to launch their kids after 18 years. The partner? That’s the one we want to keep! So not only does expressing love and appreciation for our partners help our kids, it keeps adult love connections alive as well.
Trust me, there’s enough love to go around. Make sure you express it daily and with gusto!