Many families either don't communicate loving feelings very often or they communicate them in destructive ways. A counselor friend once told me she was appalled to discover that some of her clients had never heard the words, "I love you" from their parents: "I couldn't imagine parents who couldn't say 'I love you' to their children, probably because I grew up hearing it all the time. But in the middle of my shock and self-righteousness, I realized that in my family, that statement was always loaded with expectations for me to do something. Most of the time when my parents said 'I love you' they would stand there and wait for us to say 'I love you, too'. So that statement always came off as a solicitation, rather than an expression of how they really felt about us."
If either of these extremes describe your upbringing, chances are, you aren't using loving statements as often--or as "cleanly"--as you might. A few simple guidelines can help.
Let's hear it! We all need to hear loving statements from people we care about. It may be easy to assume that your kids know you love them. After all, you do love them and you probably do a lot of loving things for them. That's important.
But feeling love for someone is not the same as expressing it. Nor is doing loving things. Loving feelings and loving behaviors are not loving words--and those are important, too.
If you find it hard to get the words out of your mouth, either from lack of familiarity or fear of rejection, start slowly. A parent in one of my workshops confessed to practicing on the dog for a few days before she could get up the nerve to try it out on her kids! Another started by writing love notes to her children, sneaking them into their lunch bags or under their pillows. Both reported such a strong, positive response from their children, that saying "I love you" came much more easily after that.
Let's hear it some more. None of this "I-told-you-I-love-you-in-1985" stuff, OK? This isn't like going to the dentist twice a year. So maybe it's still not easy to say, even with the practice and little successes. Maybe hearing "I love you" even gives your kids the creeps (this is more age specific than anything else and less likely to happen if you don't say it in front of his entire 5th grade class). Say it anyhow. As a gift to yourself, communicate your love daily. At least.
Keep it simple! "I love you" is a complete sentence. We don't need to tie our feelings for a person to the person's behavior. In fact, whenever we connect it to something the other person has done, "I love you" becomes a statement of conditional caring.
"I love you when you make your bed", or "I love you when you make the honor roll", suggest that you love your child because of his behavior or accomplishment. It also suggests that the love wouldn't be there--or be quite the same--if the child hadn't made the bed or the grades. (Don't you love your kid in either case?) You can still be excited and happy about the behavior, but avoid communicating that your loving feelings for your child exist because he's doing what pleases you.
"I love you". Period.
No "buts" about it! By the same token, watch the tendency to use "I love you" as a lead-in to a confrontation about something your child has done that you find disturbing. If you need to address the child's behavior or set a boundary, by all means do so. But deal with the behavior--not the worth of the child, or your feelings for him or her.
If the child needs to clean her room or miss the movie because her chores were not done, deal with the situation, not your feelings. You don't need to say, "I love you but..." to soften the blow. Your feelings are not an issue here.
Besides, because of the way the brain processes the words we hear, whatever you say before the word "but” automatically gets canceled out anyhow. (In other words, if you say, "I love you, but your room is a mess," all the child ends up hearing is, "Your room is a mess.")
Using "but" in the same sentence as "I love you" is confusing and manipulative. As in the previous example, this type of statement suggests that the child is only lovable conditionally. Cut to the chase. Avoid tying the feelings you express to the way the child is acting--good or bad.
No expectations. Say "I love you" because you want to say "I love you." Say it because you feel love toward the person you're talking to. Say it because it feels good to say it.
"I love you" is a powerful statement and lots of times it will evoke a loving response from the recipient. But attaching an expectation for a response to the statement is a set-up--both for you and the other person. If the expectation is there, your child will know it. If he does respond, it will probably be to avoid guilt or conflict rather than genuine, spontaneous caring. Is that what you really want?
If your children haven't learned how to say "I love you" yet, it's OK to tell them that you need to hear those three little words sometimes, too. Then give them some space to risk, practice and learn. By far their best lessons will come from your own unconditional modeling.
Turn the love inward. Next to unconditional love, the best gift you can give another person is the love you give yourself! In fact the ability to love, appreciate and care for yourself is essential to healthy, loving relationships with others.
So, look in the mirror. Look into your eyes. Say "I love you." No "buts." No qualifiers. Say it out loud. Say it often. Mean it.
What better way to affirm how worthwhile and lovable you are. And what better way to practice one of the most basic, most precious and important parenting skills there is.
When your children aren't very loving...
"I HATE YOU, MOMMY!"
OK. You're really working hard on your boundaries and recognize that sometimes responsible parenting means saying "no" to your child's request for Milk Duds for dinner or a plea for a curfew. If your child is doing her job, you can count on her to occasionally resist you efforts at setting even reasonable limits. And sometimes that means she is going to fight dirty, especially if it's worked in the past.
"I HATE YOU, MOMMY!"
Nothing will trigger anger, shame, shock and a sense of inadequacy faster than this statement. It's hard to hear someone you love tell you that he hates you and not take it rather personally. Children know this. They figure out, often at a very early age, that this is a short-cut to a lot of attention (negative attention though it may be) and often to getting their own way.
So, how do you respond?
It's actually pretty simple--at least on paper. First of all, resist the temptation to talk about how this statement "really hurts me and brings up all my abandonment and inadequacy issues." Sure, tell your therapist or your sponsor, but don't dump on your 4-year-old. (Even if your children happen to have degrees in psychiatry, do you really want to make them responsible for your feelings? They're not, you know, and the burden can be overwhelming even for healthy, well-adjusted adults with excellent personal boundaries!)
Instead, acknowledge the feelings behind the statement: "You sound pretty angry," "You're upset about that'" or even "I understand."
Disengage--especially if you find yourself getting upset. Watch out for the temptation to hurt back. Saying "I hate you too, sometimes!" may be exactly what you are feeling at the moment, but it won't help you, your child or your relationship for you to become a 4-year-old who is acting out. If you need some support, encouragement, reassurance or understanding, call on your adult resources.
And leave the door open for further discussions with your child at a later, and calmer, time: "Let's talk about this in a little bit."
If you are able to stay "unhooked" and refuse to change your mind because your child has said that she hates you, she's far less likely to continue using this statement to manipulate your feelings and behaviors. Plus, you'll be able to hang onto the idea that you're still a wonderful and lovable person--no matter what your kids say!
*Yes this works on Daddies, too.
Proud Mama To