Showing love for your kids... even when they least deserve it

Sometimes, loving your child is so easy. That sweet little bundle of joy sleeping quietly in your arms smelling like heaven. The eager young student who can’t wait to show you all the A’s on his report card.

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  • Sometimes, loving your child is so easy. That sweet little bundle of joy sleeping quietly in your arms smelling like heaven. The eager young student who can’t wait to show you all the A’s on his report card. The accomplished musician playing her first featured solo on a concert stage. That surprise Mother’s Day breakfast when your brood comes bounding in with huge smiles and a fresh stack of home-cooked pancakes, accompanied by home-made cards with warmly scribbled messages of love and appreciation.

  • Not all parenting moments are like that. There are the tantrums, the messy diapers, and the fights over chores. There are the unmet curfews, the unintended fender benders, and the report cards with less than stellar grades. For some, there’s the unplanned pregnancy, or the discovery of drug paraphernalia in the bedroom closet, or the devastating suicide attempt.

  • Parenting can bring our highest highs, and our lowest lows. It can create our deepest satisfactions, and deepest heartbreaks. When our kids disappoint us at times – when they choose the opposite of what we wanted for them – when they break our hearts, or turn away from everything we ever tried to teach them – in those challenging times, they may need our love and assurance more than ever. How can we show our love for them, even when they are at their worst, when they least seem to deserve our kindness and affection?

  • 1. Keep it in perspective

  • Don’t get sucked into the drama of a difficult moment. Deal with today’s challenge, keeping in mind the brighter times you have shared previously with your child. Most often, storm clouds come for a while, then pass. When stormy times come into the relationship with your child, remember the sunny days, and anticipate happier times ahead.

  • 2. Stay grounded and serene yourself

  • Do something to refocus and center yourself. Maybe it’s a long bubble bath, or a brisk walk around the block, or quietly counting to 10. Maybe it’s a heartfelt prayer, or private time in your car or bedroom, or writing out your feelings in a journal. Maybe it’s a conversation with a counselor, a religious leader, or a trusted friend. Your serenity won’t solve the entire problem, at least it will prevent you from adding to it.

  • 3. Keep your voice gentle and steady

  • Even if, your child is screaming at you, be the bigger person, and don’t retaliate with harshness or threats. You help calm yourself, and calm your child, when you think peaceful thoughts, then reflect them in a peaceful tone of voice.

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  • 4. Find something positive to appreciate, even in hard times

  • Let your child know that you remember and respect the positive things they bring to you and your family. Even when you’re discussing a difficult topic, express in clear words your love and appreciation for your child.

  • 5. Maintain connection and eye contact

  • In the face of conflict, it is a natural reaction to withdraw, separate oneself, or turn away. However, doing so creates even more distress, for both you and your child. Stay turned toward your child – maintain gentle eye contact – verbally and nonverbally express your interest and concern. Often, children will work through the conflict of the hour if they can feel the strength of your steady support and awareness. Resist the temptation to pull away because those hard times may be when your child needs you the very most. Don’t be pushy or clingy, but stay connected.

  • 6. Show an increase of love after a period of conflict

  • Customize expression of that expanded love to your individual child. Bake their favorite pie, or take them on a special parent-child date to their favorite place. Talk to them kindly, and provide a safe place for them to express their feelings. Spend some special focused time with them. Misbehavior so very often is a desperate attempt to get parental attention. So, be proactive. Provide a struggling child with the greatest gift – your focused time and attention. If you do that early, you may help prevent some of the more difficult episodes, preserving time and focus for happier times with your child.

  • 7. Separate the person from the behavior

  • Particularly when infractions are serious, remember to love the person - even if, you hate the behavior.

  • We all make mistakes at times – sometimes even serious ones. We all need to be loved - even when we don’t deserve it. Loving your child in challenging times will strengthen the bond more than almost any other experience in life – giving them a secure foundation of trust and self-esteem, and giving you the opportunity to grow in the capacity for loving others – no matter what.

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Carrie Maxwell Wrigley, LCSW, is a counselor in private practice, and mother of five. Visit her website for handouts and other resources on similar topics.


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