When kids are hard to love, love is exactly what they need

This is last of a seven-part series on the SPECIAL emotional needs of children. The S is for Smile. The P is for Powerful. The E is for Explore. The C is for Connection. The I is for Important. The A is for Attention. Today we tackled the L — Love.

This little kid is triggering me.

Most authors have no need to read their books after publication. I am not one of them.

I find myself re-reading passages from ParentShift again and again because, unlike other subjects, child-rearing isn't something we can learn and move on from. Children change all the time, and so do we. What we read six months ago may speak to us on a completely different level when faced with an entirely new set of circumstances.

For me, ParentShift is like a roadmap. You can’t memorize a roadmap. You have to keep checking the map if you're going to stay on track.

This book-as-roadmap perspective came into sharp relief last week, just as I was beginning to write about the last of the seven SPECIAL emotional needs of children — love.

What is love?

A child’s need for love -— more specifically unconditional love — is one of the most misunderstood concepts in parenting today. We all believe we love our kids unconditionally — and, in a way, we do! Even though we like it when they get good grades, use good manners, regulate their emotions and are kind to their siblings, we don't love them any less when they fail.

But that’s not the way kids see it.

To kids, love isn’t something quiet and still that sits inside our chests and radiates warmth. Love is what they see on our faces and hear in our voices. Love is how we treat them. No matter how many times we say, “I love you,” when children perceive our approval or acceptance as being contingent on certain behavior, they perceive our love as conditional.

That's what makes limit-setting without punishments such a powerful skill to own.

So how does all this relate to me?

That's not funny

Last week, Maxine, who just turned 15, started "acting up" at dinner with my sister's family. She was in a big, feisty mood and, believing she was being funny, began talking loudly and over other people. No one could get a word in. I gave her a few minutes to get it out of her system and, when she didn’t, I grew annoyed and embarrassed. I found myself pushing back — giving her "the look," telling her to tone it down, meeting her sarcasm with sarcasm of my own.

None of this "worked," of course.

At one point, she started pointing out the flaws of every adult in the room in a way that usually made us laugh — but that, in the moment, just seemed mean.

That's about the time my brother-in-law got up, retrieved his copy of ParentShift, flipped to the appendix, and started reading from the list of often-overlooked developmental characteristics of kids at various ages.

Under 15, he read:

"Intense need for independence... explores self in relation to ideas, ideals, and opinions of others... analyzes the personality traits of parents."

It was the perfect ice breaker. We all were laughing in no time. And it gave me time to remember that, just beneath this loud, commanding, insulting exterior was my wonderful, sensitive, genuinely funny girl.

My 'Aha' moment

The reprieve also allowed me to remember the passage from ParentShift that I'd been reading in preparation for this post. Here it is.

Although it may be hard for us sometimes, unconditional love cannot hinge on a child’s skill set or behavior. Unconditional love looks at the child and sees him as enough as is, warts and all. Unconditional love says, “If you do nothing more than what you are doing in this moment, you are worthy of love.
After all, if the most important people in their lives don’t see them as “enough” right now, they may never see themselves as enough—no matter what they do or accomplish in their lives. 

Interestingly, as Alfie Kohn points out, children tend to push their parents’ buttons in direct relations to the insecurity they are feeling about the parents’ love. 

“What we call testing limits,” he said in Unconditional Parenting, “is actually testing the conditionality of our love.” What parents need to be saying instead is: “No matter what you do, I will never, ever, ever withdraw my love.

Gordon Neufeld, coauthor of Hold On to Your Kids, called unconditional love the “indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved.

 No doubt about it: This may well be the hardest part of heart-centered parenting. 

How many of us, as children, were scolded when we did the “wrong” thing? How many of us suffered “the look” from our parents? You know “the look.” The narrow-eyed, chin-jutting scowl that said,“Don’t you dare do that again, or you are going to regret it for the rest of your life.

 Listen, all parents scold their kids from time to time. We can’t help it. And, again, no one is expecting perfection here. Children are flexible and forgiving. 

It’s just helpful to know that punitive modes of communication often are decoded by children as conditional love. Softening our gestures, our words, and, yes, even our facial expressions can do wonderful things for our kids. Plus, it sets the scene for the way they can expect to be treated as adults. 

 Someone wise once said, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” And it’s true. We give our kids a baseline for their “normal.” How we talk to them now may become how they’ll expect others to talk to them later. Our patience for their foibles or appreciation of their personalities will influence their lives in many different ways. 

We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it. 

Talk about being on point right?

Love is the last, but not least, of kids' seven emotional needs.

That's when I shifted my approach. Instead of fighting fire with fire, I doused her flames with kindness. I made a point of making eye contact with Maxine, and smiling. When her uncle started reading the positive traits of 15-year-olds — and there are many — I was quick to point out that she definitely fit the bill. I told her I loved her sense of humor, most of the time anyway.

By choosing affection and acceptance, I prevented myself from going further down a dead-end road. And by changing course, I helped change the dynamic of what could have been a pretty miserable evening for us both. Love wins again.