One of the most important responsibilities we have as parents is let our children know they're loved. It’s not necessarily a difficult challenge, as we generally have the necessary skills, but there are different ways children learned they're loved that us parents might not be completely aware of. As a result, sometimes we might forgo certain actions because we don’t recognize their importance.
Romper spoke with Dr. Dyan Hes, M.D., a practicing pediatrician at Gramercy Pediatrics and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Dr. Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a psychotherapist practicing in Manhattan and specializing in creating meaningful relationships, to better understand how children learn they're loved, and what parents can do to facilitate more moments that remind our children, even if that reminder is subtle, that our love is unconditional.
Every child is different, so just like adults have different love languages — words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and touch, according to Dr. Gary Chapman, Ph.D., author of The 5 Love Languages — children might appreciate different forms and displays of affection as they grow older. By taking the time to get to know your child, you can find ways, activities, and moments to facilitate bonding and remind them that you love them. Again, it might seem intuitive, because loving your child is so effortless, but taking a moment to learn the following can ensure that our child or children never forget how much they're valued.
Newborns and infants don’t exactly know what it means when you tell them you love them. That’s why physical touch (like skin-to-skin) is so important, especially if your infant spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Dr. Hes emphasizes that parents can show babies right away that they are loved by way of touch.
“Numerous studies have shown the benefit of this type of parental bonding and love. Studies show that babies who had skin-to-skin at birth are more calm and confident,” Dr. Hes tells me.
As children get older, you can offer affection in other ways: a hug, a kiss, snuggling on the couch, or even just a high-five can show your child you care for them. Just don’t forget to respect their boundaries by way of consent.
Regular Bonding Experiences
Start to develop bonding routines early. It can be as simple as reading a book, as involved as going to a Baby and Me class, or something you make up together over time, like a fun morning or bedtime routine.
“Reading to your baby shows love. It is a shared experience where a baby both learns and spends time with a parent," Dr. Hes says. "Feeding a baby can [also] be a fun, shared experience for the parent-child dyad."
Help Achieving Milestones
By the same token, think about a time when you were working hard towards a goal. Maybe you were trying to get into college, or maybe you were hoping for a promotion at work. Or perhaps you were participating in a marathon or some other kind of competition. Chances are you had at least one or more people at your side, rooting for you, right? Most of us make it past the finish line because we have someone egging us on. Children are the same way.
“Helping your child achieve their milestones together can be a bonding experience," Dr. Hes tells me. "Helping them take their first steps, doing art projects, pushing a child on a swing. These are all signs that the parent is invested in their child’s happiness."
Dr. Smerling says that parents should put down their phones so they can be "all in" with their children.
“Spend time with them doing what they want, even if you don’t necessarily want to do it,” she tells me.
According to Dr. Hes, many kids express feelings of frustration toward parents who are constantly on their phones. It’s not hard to imagine, if you really think about it. When you go out for a lunch date with a friend, wouldn’t it be annoying if they spent most of that time staring at their device instead of having a conversation? Children notice it way more than most of us realize. Prove to them that you’re fully engaged by not only refusing to look at your phone, but also asking them insightful questions and maintaining regular eye contact (though be mindful of children on the spectrum as studies show they have a more difficult time with eye contact).
Children often hear plenty of praise about how “cute” they look or how “adorable” they are. While that may make them feel good in the moment. it’s not really sending the greatest message. According to Dr. Smerling, praise should be about what your child does, instead of what they look like. Dr. Hes agrees, adding that positive reinforcement via praise can be an excellent motivator for improve childhood behaviors.
“Children need to hear kind words to know that they are safe and secure,” Dr. Hes tells me.
All that said, do be aware of going overboard. Studies show that sincere praise has plenty of positive effects on children, but that inflated praise (e.g. calling their work “perfect” instead of “great”) can have detrimental effects. You want them to feel that your praise, and therefore your love for them, is sincere, and based on their efforts versus something intrinsic (like having “beautiful eyes”).
Children desire consistency, but life happens and it's not always easy to provide the consistency they crave. While you should be kind to yourself as you balance a variety of responsibilities, it's important to work towards creating an environment a child can depend on, especially as they get older.
“Teenagers can test the limits of any parents, but consistent support from their parents is key," Dr. Hes tells Romper. "Being there for your child through both successes and failures is important."
While adolescents behave better when rules are enforced, Dr. Hes says they don’t always realize that the rules are just another way parents are showing that they love them. So it’s OK to be the so-called “bad guy." Most teenagers will eventually grow to realize that they were lucky to be loved by someone who was willing to establish rules and barriers.
All in all, showing your children that you love them isn’t an impossible task. Much of it, like telling them that you love them and giving them lots of affection (especially when they’re young), helps set them up to feel loved and secure as they grow older and become less dependent. You might find that the way you show them love (and the ways they show you love) change over the years, but what matters is that there’s love there to begin with.