Unconditional love is the act of loving your child no matter what, without any limitations or conditions (“if you behave well,” “if you are a good kid,” “if you don’t fight with your sibling,” “if you get good grades,” etc.). Unconditional love is the act of accepting your child and caring about their happiness without limitation and without concern as to how they are or how they perform.
Embrace your child as they are. Accept and appreciate your child’s strengths, no matter who your child is, no matter what diagnosis or issues they have, even if it may be hard to do that initially because there are more weaknesses. As parents, we need to train our minds to look for the positive, look for our children’s strengths and then pause and appreciate them. Make a list of your child’s strengths and make it a daily habit to note those strengths in action. It may be just a little thing that your child did, but noticing it and labeling this as a strength, will help you appreciate your child more. Let your child know what are the beautiful things you see in them. “You have a beautiful smile,” “I love it how you share with your brother,” “You did a great job sitting down at dinner,” “I appreciate you are a team player and help out setting the table,” are some everyday life examples. Your appreciation reflects on your words and behavior, and this is what your child will get from you: the gift of seeing themselves in the positive light you see them.
Appreciate your child’s weaknesses. As parents, we need to realize that children are not ‘perfect’ in the way would imagine them or want them to be. Every human being has their strengths and weaknesses, and this is the reality. Accepting this fact will enable us not to get stuck on ‘what is wrong,’ or ‘what needs to be fixed,’ and move to a position of understanding. Many of the children’s traits we automatically label as ‘negative’ are simply the precursors of positive traits. The child who doesn’t follow directions, who does what she wants despite parental warnings, and who doesn’t seem to feel threatened may just be one of tomorrow’s leaders; the child who breaks toys, takes everything apart, can’t sit still, and frustrates you, has a curious mind that may signal that they are going to be among the future innovators. It’s up to you to see just the ‘weakness’ or see this characteristic in a broader perspective and realize that the flip side of it may have something positive in store.
Allow yourself to grieve and let go of your dream child. Maybe you wanted a boy to do sports together but got a girl, or you were dreading to have a girl and do matching dresses, but you had a boy. Maybe your child has a health issue or developmental issue or temperament that doesn’t agree with yours. Whatever the situation is, maybe you had fantasies about your dream child who would be just perfect and just the way you imagined them, yet life had something different in store for you. Allow yourself to grieve the shattered image of your ideal child and gradually get to know your child, appreciate him or her and enjoy this bundle of love.
Use empathy, get in your child’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Tired of yelling at your teenage daughter who bothers her little brother? Tired of your toddler who has toilet ‘accidents’ on a daily basis? Tired of your son not listening to you? Stop and observe that there is underneath this behavior. Below the surface of the misbehavior you may be surprised to find different issues: your teenage daughter is afraid you love her little brother more than her, your toddler is so busy playing that she forgets to take a potty-break, your son has a hard time following your long, elaborate instructions and finally tunes out. When children act out, it’s usually because there is an unmet need- they want something and cannot verbalize it. If we can be patient enough and consistent enough to stop and listen to the unmet need that lies below the bad behavior, then we can understand the behavior and can forgive it. Showing love and acceptance to our children at such difficult times and trying to meet their needs is the best way to help our child feel loved and secured so that they can drop the unwanted behavior.
Accept your child’s feelings, but not the behavior. Accept the feeling of the child, no matter their intensity- fear, anger, jealousy, stress, whatever it may be, it’s real for your child. Telling them in the heat of the moment “you are not angry honey” or, even worse, “you shouldn’t be angry,” it’s not just wrong, it’s counterproductive. By accepting your child’s feelings, “I can see you are very angry at your sister. But we don’t heat when we are angry. Let’s take some deep breaths first and then you can tell me what happened.” By accepting the feeling, the child feels accepted and validated. It doesn’t mean that you accept the behavior, because you don’t, and you make it clear. But the emotional connection with your child is what counts in this situation and it’s the vehicle that will help your child to manage their strong feelings appropriately.
Recognize, accept, and manage your own feelings. Recognize when you are sad, mad, agitated, or plain tired. Accept the fact that you cannot be 100% of the time calm, happy, peaceful and there are going to be times when your own strong feelings are going to be overwhelming. You may as well have an adult ‘melt down,’ when you lose your cool and start yelling. It’s only human to have all kinds of feelings, and especially when your child ‘provokes’ you, as when they start hitting, fighting, slamming doors, disobeying, not listening, and the list goes on. Stop and think: “If I yell and lash out at them, would that stop them?”. Maybe. “Would that prevent further bad behavior?” “Certainly not.” “Would that make our relationship any better?” “Certainly not.” What you can do instead is acknowledge how you feel, communicate it to your child in a calm voice “What you did, made me very angry” and then take a time-out to take some deep breaths and ask yourself ‘is this going to matter in two years from now?” And because chances are it’s not really going to matter, let it go, reconnect with the child and find a peaceful way to correct their behavior, always within the frame of loving and accepting them. This way you let your child know their behavior was bad, that misbehaving has consequences on how other people around them feel and that that by misbehaving they don’t get what they want- but all these while loving and respecting your child as a person. This way children become secure adults with a good sense or self-worth and self-acceptance.