While parents shower their kids with cards, candy and gifts on Valentine’s Day, expressing love should be a year-round priority, say Menninger mental health experts.
“It is crucial for children to feel loved,” says Chris Grimes
, MSW, LCSW, a senior social worker with Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program
. “It is so important for their development to have someone in their lives to whom they feel securely attached, and who supports them and cares for them.”
A growing body of research shows that people who have secure attachments
in childhood tend to have better self-esteem and are better able to handle stress and anxiety. They also are likely to have healthy, happy and enduring relationships as adults.
So showing your love is an investment in your child’s future. Think you have it covered because you tell your child “I love you” every day? That’s great, but those words become even more powerful when backed up with the following three techniques. Try them at home to keep the love flowing long long after Valentine’s Day.
Pass out the praise
“When you see your child doing well, be sure to give a compliment,” says Frances Fisher, CTRS, CPRP, a rehabilitation specialist with Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program. Make your praise concrete and focus on what your child did, instead of labeling what he or she is (“I liked the way you studied hard on that test” versus “You are so smart!”).
And don’t wait for a major accomplishment to give praise or positive affirmations. An opportunity for praise could be something as simple as your child getting along with his sister, or helping you set the dinner table. Such affirmations are “powerful communicators of love,” according Gary Chapman, author of the best-selling book on relationships, The 5 Love Languages.
Parents are often urged to spend “quality time” with their children, but what does that mean? Doing something he or she wants to do—like playing video games together, riding bikes, or just hanging out at the house. The idea is to be curious about what makes your child tick, and to convey that curiosity to your child, Grimes says. “Pursue the unique perspective of your child by being interested in what your child is thinking and feeling, without being intrusive. This can help your child feel valued, supported, encouraged and most importantly—loved.”
Grimes says the adolescents he treats may indeed believe their parents love them, “but they often feel that their parents just don’t ‘get’ them.” When kids feel heard and understood, they feel loved, he adds. What does that mean for parents? He advises them to practice listening during conversations with the goal of being curious about what their child is thinking, and without immediately offering judgment or advice. It’s a difficult task that’s not always intuitive for parents.
“Parents often feel they need to protect their children from experiencing struggles or failure,” Fisher says. “Instead focus on supporting your kids being able to work through those difficulties for themselves. Maybe that doesn’t feel very compassionate, but in the long term it is the most loving thing parents can do.”