When mothers are emotionally in tune with their children's feelings, those children come to believe they are lovable. They get the message that they deserve to be both seen and heard. They understand that they are worthy of the affection and attention of others.
When mothers are distant, emotionally unavailable, or highly inconsistent in their emotional response to their child, he comes to believe that there is something wrong with him — that he is not lovable. After all, if you believe that the one person who is supposed to love you most in all the world doesn't, then who else will?
The key here is how your child feels about your response to her, and not what you think your response is to your child. You may be surprised to find that your perceptions don't always match.
The importance of feeling securely attached to others
Psychologists refer to early bonding experiences between mother and child as attachment. When children are securely attached to their mothers, they are much more likely to have successful relationships as adults.
The work of psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver indicates that early childhood attachments are predictive of both adult romantic relationships and even adult friendships. An adult who felt securely attached as a child understands how to have his own needs met. He tends to feel confident and secure, and to trust others appropriately.
Adults who did not feel securely attached as children often find themselves on a quest to find the love and acceptance they lacked as a child. Women are especially prone to relationships where they are constantly trying to please someone who can't be pleased. The insecurely attached adult is also likely to carry the same relationship patterns forward into her relationship with her own children.
Last week I watched a young family make a mad dash through the Philadelphia airport to catch a plane. Behind the dad and mom, with young baby in arms, ran a little girl about three years old. She was screaming and crying, "Mommy, Mommy! Don't leave me! Don't leave me!" She was panicked and far too young to realize that she wasn't permanently being left behind. Finally her mother stopped running. Then she ran back, scooped her crying child up in her arms, and held her close.
Similar to this mom, we are sometimes in too much of a rush to be in tune and in touch with our children's feelings. Or maybe it's not just a case of the "busies." Maybe it's divorce, postpartum depression, or just trying to survive from day to day.
What can you do when you're having trouble managing your own feelings?
1. Recognize your feelings for what they are
Don't shut them off and don't keep busy to avoid having feelings. Don't use food or other addictions to mask your emotions. Know and accept how you feel and then decide how to best manage your emotions. Be willing to ask for and receive the help you need.
2. Give yourself some attention
Take time to meet your own needs. Take a hot bath. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch a sunset. Do something you enjoy doing.
3. Spend time with people who care about how you feel and will listen to you
Have regular date nights with your husband. Spend a girls' weekend away with friends. And don't hesitate to contact a counselor or therapist if you need one.
When your child needs you, stop what you're doing. Really look at her, not through her or around her. Then sit down, take her hands in yours and just listen. Don't judge, don't criticize, don't offer advice. Just listen. Let her know that you care about her and that you're there for her. Listening to her doesn't mean that you agree with her. Listening simply means that you recognize how she feels.
It's not always easy to be emotionally in tune with children. We're all pretty much doing the best job we know how to do. But one of the most essential things we can do for our children, and our grandchildren, is to be in tune with and understanding of who they are and how they feel.