Kids need love. I mean, as the social creatures humans are, we all need love. But kids especially and critically need it. They depend on being loved for their very survival. They, and the ancestors they’ve evolved from, would literally die if there wasn’t an adult around who loved them enough to care for them. That’s pretty much the most you can need something.
It’s not just that being loved feels good to them when it happens. It’s that they cannot regularly function if they are not feeling loved. This should make sense, that something so essential to their survival is a top priority for them. Like our brains are constantly monitoring our dietary intake to make sure we’re not starving, children’s brains are constantly monitoring their surroundings for an adult who cares about them..
This is why kids act out when they need attention. It’s not a conscious choice to do something crazy that they think will get them attention. It’s an involuntary reaction to a subconscious perception that they’re not being cared about, and resulting in a break down of their ability to think clearly or make good choices. It’s like how many adults fall to pieces when they’re too hungry. We don’t act like that because we consciously believe it will get us food. We act like that because our brain has detected a need for something crucial to our survival and has to focus its energy on that. So energy that usually goes elsewhere, like to common courtesy and good decision making, is redirected to being hungry.
Children need to feel loved in that same way. And when they don’t, they act like wild beasts. Not because they want attention, but because they actually, literally, physically need attention to be able to function normally.
If we, as parents, understand this about our children and accept it, we have a huge advantage in parenting. It means we can think of our children’s need for love and attention in the same way we think about their need for food. We all know that when kids get hungry, they fall to pieces emotionally. So often without even putting much thought into it, we ward off a lot of melt downs (not to mention their physical and emotional discomfort) by regularly feeding our kids. And we know that when a child does get hungry, fixing it is as easy as feeding them. Now imagine how much easier things can be if we understand how similar to that their need for love is! Make sure the child is regularly feeling loved and cared for, and we avoid many melt downs. Respond to melt downs with an infusion of love, and the melt downs are likely to dissolve. So simple!
Making sure a child feels loved all the time, of course, is not always simple. Especially if we’re using love inefficiently. Some things we do to or for children that totally come from a place of love on our end turn out not to be the most efficient or effective ways of communicating our love to our children. And that’s what we want to do here. Communicate love. And give our kids the most powerful doses of detectable love we can without expending too much of our own energy, so that keeping it up over time is sustainable.
To some degree, the kind of love kids need varies from child to child. If you’ve heard of the 5 Love Languages, that’s one way of understanding that. The basic idea is that different things mean “I love you” to different people. Some people feel loved when they hear kind words, for example, while others feel more loved when they receive gifts. The Love Languages are a great way of making sure that the love we give will be perceived and received by the intended recipient.
But when it comes to children, there’s one thing we can do that almost always has the most potent effect in terms of signaling to them that they are loved (in the way their instincts need them to be), and thus preventing those malfunction melt downs. And that is giving them our pure, genuine presence. And undivided attention. Now, this would be bad news if we needed to do it all the time in order to maintain their love levels. It is absolutely impossible to give kids undivided attention all the time. But the great news is that because this kind of attention is so potent and powerful, a little bit goes a long way. And there are things we can do to maximize the benefits. Here are a few tips:
- Set a timer for 10 minutes (or whatever amount of time you want) and commit to doing nothing else until the timer goes off. Just be with them. No phone, no computer, no reading, just being present. The time limit helps us to be present by creating a boundary between this time with our children and later with the rest of the world. It’s easier to stay present when you know that in a short time, you can get to all those other things.
- Get down on your child’s level and watch them. Position your body similarly to how theirs is positioned if possible. This tells them that you’re entering their world.
- Watch them and make eye contact when they look at you. This tells them that you’re interested.
- Tell them what you see them doing, as if you were a mirror. “You’re picking up that block. I see you putting it on the tower. You look like you’re really concentrating.” It feels silly at first, but this is the single most powerful tool for making kids feel seen, which is at the essence of their instinctual need for love. Quite literally, they need to know someone is watching them, and this is an undeniable way of showing them that.
- Avoid evaluative comments, including “positive” ones like “You’re so good at that!” or “Great job!”. It might feel like showering kids with compliments would be a good way to express love. But what they actually want most is just to know that you’re right there with them, and stating neutral, objective observations is the most effective way to show them that. Compliments introduce room for interpretation, and that room actually functions like space between you and them. Save the praise for another time. Just be a direct reflection of the reality you two are sharing, an in-no-way-uncertain presence in their experience.
- Follow their lead. Let them steer the play. If they want to sit and stare out a window, do that with them. If they want to wrestle, do that. Don’t judge it or try to control it. Just go with the flow.
This kind of intense presence with children is incredibly useful, and the more you do it, the more you learn how to make the most of it. Just keep the goal in mind – letting your child’s brain know that they are being lovingly watched. Once they know that, they’re free to go explore, play independently, learn, grow and shine. Don’t be surprised if after 10 minutes of this intense special time with them, they go off and play happily for an hour or more! It’s like money in the bank.
We all love our children. That goes without saying. And that’s good, because they need love so much. The trick is in loving them in a way that they undeniably pick up on. When we learn to do that, we’re really, truly feeding our children’s hearts.
Here’s to happy children, happy parents and lots of (very efficient) love!