Unconditional love is the foundation of wellness. What does that mean exactly? Humans are relational beings and we need each other for survival. The earliest relationship in all of our lives comes from our primary caregivers. When we show our children that we love them no matter what they do, what they say, or their accomplishments, they will have a secure attachment. It is the strength of this bond that will allow our children to successfully relate to their siblings, friends, teachers, and eventually partners.
Parents can help children establish a secure attachment from the first moments of a child’s life. Caring for our babies gently, reading their cues, and meeting their needs in a consistent and loving way are among the best ways to establish this in infancy. As our children grow into toddlers, we provide consistent, safe, and fun scaffolding for them to explore their environments. We do not shame or judge, we encourage and delight in their exploration. Even on our most difficult days, when it seems that nothing is going the way we want it to, we take moments to reassure our children of how special they are, how much they mean to us, and how much we love them no matter what.
Sometimes difficulties we had in our own upbringing can interfere in our abilities to parent in the ways that we want to. There are such amazing resources out there to help us course correct. My favorite book on attachment is called Parenting from the Inside Out, by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell. Another book, by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, that can be helpful is called Raising a Secure Child.
I adore the Greater Good Science Center out of the University of California – Berkeley. In their article, Five Ways to Talk with Your Kids So They Feel Loved, they discuss reminding your children of these critical messages throughout their development. The first message and arguably the most important is: “You are loved for who you are and who you will become.”
As our children grow into tweens and teens, their boundary pushing and the busy-ness of our lives can make it harder to convey these messages. We want the best for them and we encourage their success. Sometimes we accidentally send the message that our love is contingent upon their success. Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, calls it “outcome love.” In her article titled The Big Problem with Rewarding Kids for Good Grades and Punishing Them for Bad Ones, Jessica Lahey, teacher and author, writes that outcome love is “a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.” It is our job to encourage our children’s success, but not at the expense of love.
February seems like the time when we all reflect on the impact of love in our lives. I hope that parents will take moments to reflect on their upbringing, on the messages that they want their children to internalize, and then take actions toward conveying those messages. Spend time with your children where they are your only focus, do things that they enjoy, and purposefully share and show how much you love them unconditionally. Whether they show it or not, they need those messages from you.
About Sandra: Dr. Sandra Lopez-Morales is a psychologist and in her first year as the director of wellness at Saint Mary’s Hall. Before coming to Saint Mary’s Hall, Sandra was the director of psychological services at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. She is a native Texan and she and her husband, Erik, have two children. Elias is in Kindergarten and Liana is two years old.