Essential Principles of Parenting:
2. Affection – Loved:
Kids need to be loved. Kids need to feel loved. Which statement is true? Both are true, but the second is more relevant
to kids. The first is more about how the parents feel and this does not automatically transmit to kids. Remember, kids are
not mind readers. If you love them they aren’t going to know unless what you do and say actually results in them feeling loved.
Affectionate behaviour involves physical contact (affectionate or playful), including touching, caressing and games such as wrestling (on the floor, bed, grass) with lots of laughing, joking, some tickling, play-acting (monsters and growling animals), piggy back rides and being carried to bed. It also includes validating a child’s feelings when upset (ie, identifying the child’s feeling and empathising) and providing comfort. Example: Mum gives the infant hugs and cuddles, smiles and says something that expresses how she feels about the child, “Mummy loves her darling little sweetie pie”. The actual words may vary, but the constants are (i) repeated use of the word ‘love’ (and other terms of endearment), (ii) spoken with a smile and (iii) physical demonstrations of affection. The infant experiences a warm fuzzy inner sensation and learns to associate this with Mum’s actions and words. The infant learns to label the ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ as ‘feeling loved’ and Mum’s smiles, hugs and cuddles to mean she loves the child. The important, implicit message received is, “Mum loves me because she regards me as worthy of love”.
‘Affection’ also involves playful interactions and other forms of physical contact such as touching, caressing and games such as wrestling (on the floor, bed, grass) with lots of laughing, joking, some tickling, play-acting (monsters and growling animals), piggy back rides and being carried to bed. Affectionate behaviour also includes providing comfort and support when a child is upset or distressed. Providing comfort for an infant has been described in “Part 1” in ‘emotional regulation’. If you know why a baby is upset or it is an older child who can tell you what the problem is, validate the child’s feelings (ie, identifying the child’s feeling and empathising, acknowledging they have a justifiable reason for their feeling. If the child can speak and tell you what the problem is, listen). Help the child to resolve whatever the issue is – talk about it, perhaps offer alternative explanations that will help the child to feel better. Provide comfort with hugs, cuddles and reassurances.
Not engaging in affectionate behaviour will leave kids feeling unloved and unworthy of love. Parents may demonstrate their love in various ways such as taking care of the child’s physical needs, providing a home, food, clothing, education and holidays. However, in the absence of verbal and physical demonstrations of affection, these actions on their own are not experienced by the child as affection since they will not result in the warm fuzzy feeling that the child learns to recognise as feeling loved. Later as an adult, they will realise what their parents did was out of love, but the need of the inner child to feel loved will remain unmet. Spending money buying expensive technology and other ‘must haves’ doe not elicit feeling loved and is no substitute for affectionate behaviour.
When a child is upset and in need of comfort DO NOT INVALIDATE the child by being dismissive of feelings. For example, do not make comments such as, “Don’t be such a sook”, “Don’t be such a big baby”, “What an awful face”, “There is nothing to cry about”, “Stop looking so miserable”, “Nobody likes a misery guts”, “You’ll scare the birds away with a face like that”, “You should be happy”. Whatever has upset your child may seem trivial to you and may actually be trivial – but the child does not have your wealth of life experience to know that. It is only through acknowledging and discussing a child’s feelings, finding solutions and providing comfort that the child is going to feel validated by parents, learn how to deal with negative feelings and how to ‘look for solutions’.
DO NOT USE FOOD as a substitute for giving affection and comfort. If kids need comforting, then what is needed is a hug and reassuring words. Never give food for emotional comfort – this is setting up a pattern of ‘comfort eating’ which generally leads to lifelong problems with weight management. When carbohydrate foods (ie, anything ‘yummy’) are consumed, they release endorphins (ie, the body’s own analgaesic hormone or neurotransmitter). This has a natural function of producing a feel good mood after eating an enjoyable meal that satisfies true hunger, but in emotional eating, it functions more as an emotional analgaesic.
The need to feel loved is violated by emotional abuse or any form of rejection. If a parent is always busy or otherwise occupied so habitually ignores or turns a child away, the parent may not realise that the child may experience this as rejection. Frequently, feelings of rejection may follow divorce or separation by parents. The non-custodial parent may have little contact with the children due to moving to live in a distant location or always being ‘too busy’ or ongoing conflict between the parents. The non-custodial parent may give reasons (or make excuses) to refuse a request by a child who wants to live with that parent. The non-custodial parent may ‘start a new family’ so may reduce contact with children of the previous relationship. The custodial parent may have a baby with a new partner and while the focus is on the new partner and baby, children from the previous relationship may feel rejected, particularly if the custodial parent feels insecure and is using the baby to consolidate the new relationship. Even if the adults make an attempt to include the other children, there will still likely be a perception of not being a part of it, of being rejected in favour of the new relationship and the new baby.
Generally, it is a mother who may be excessively affectionate, to the point the child feels suffocated and may feel embarrassed by Mum’s displays in front of the child’s friends. The mother may be intrusive into her children’s adult relationships and
seems to compete with their partners for attention and affection. As adults, the children may recall Mum as being ‘emotionally needy’, ‘emotionally demanding’ or ‘emotionally manipulative’. Generally, the mother may have suffered from emotional deprivation as a child and her excessive affection towards her children is to meet her own emotional needs, rather than meeting those of her children. She may be projecting her needs on to her children and therefore believe she is simply being an affectionate mother determined that her children will not be emotionally deprived (as she was). She may also be giving affection in the expectation of receiving love in return, ie, affectionate behaviour may actually be child-like ‘care eliciting behaviour’. Rather than being the unconditional love of a mother, the love she gives is conditional on her child giving love in