Helping your child feel loved is one of the most important initiatives of parenthood. Dr. Laura Gerak, a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, shared insight on how to make sure children feel secure and valued.
Finding one-on-one time to spend together
Dr. Gerak recommends parents reserve time each week when they can be attentive and practice active listening. That means stowing the devices away and being present in the moment.
“Relationships are measured by quality, not quantity,” said Dr. Gerak. “Spending a meaningful 15 minutes together can be enough sometimes. Don’t aim to set aside big chunks of time that could stress you out or could be hard to fulfill. It is more important your child has these regular windows of your attention throughout the week.”
She recommends planning a few ‘our time’ spaces in your calendar each week that children can look forward to. Remind children to look at the calendar for those times when they are needy at other times. Color code them on a tangible calendar so kids can look forward to it.
“It is OK to say ‘I can’t right now, but am really looking forward to our time tomorrow,’” Dr. Gerak said. “This helps kids know they have dedicated time with you which you value, even if it can’t be right this instant. It’s when they don’t know when or if they are going to get time with you that they feel lost, floundering, demanding and unimportant compared to your other areas of life.”
Create some family rituals. Bedtime can be a great time to spend together reviewing the day and planning for the next. Sunday morning could mean making waffles together. Friday night is popcorn night. Pick a day to create a family dinner together. Find some things you enjoy doing together and make them a priority. Hiking, shooting hoops in the backyard, window shopping or going for a drive are all good options for spending time together.
Helping each of your children feel equally loved
It is common for siblings to feel competitive for their parents’ love and attention. Luckily, there’s no limit on the love parents can express for their children.
“Love is not finite. It is actually Infinite,” Dr. Gerak said. “There is enough love to go around and love continues to expand throughout your life. Your heart can always open to welcome others. The more we love, the richer and fuller are lives become and not at the ‘expense’ of loving others.”
Each child may need to have love expressed in different ways. Dr. Gerak cautions parents not to fall into the trap of comparing children to each other but rather to understand their individual needs and come to know how each child feels loved.
If your children are at different ages and levels of development, the time you spend with each of them need not be equal. For teens, one longer time spent together each week may work best. Multiple shorter chunks of time may be more effective for younger children.
“If children comment on this, it is OK to say kids need different allocations of time at different ages and times in their life. The message is that there is a time for everything,” she said. “There’s my time, your time, our time, parents time and siblings time. It should not be about them all the time. But you must follow through to build the trust that each child will get their time with you.”
There’s security found in routines and boundaries
Providing limits, boundaries, predictability and schedules will always help children feel loved and secure but are especially important during these unusual times.
“Children may say they don’t want boundaries, but they need it and don’t know it, just like most kids don’t understand the merits of eating a healthy breakfast,” said Gerak. “These are the building blocks of security. Knowing there are limits you will put on them makes them feel safe and loved.”
Even loose schedules and routines give guardrails for children and teens. Creating a foundation for mornings, afternoons, weekdays and weekends helps children know what to expect.
“If times are disrupted as they have been, provide the message ‘we’ve got this’ to your child. Help them understand that you are in control and will find new ways to do things and adapt,” said Dr. Gerak. “Be the voice of reason and explain that the family can shift and change course. It may be hard at times but we may learn all sorts of new things. Invite your child’s ideas on how the family can adapt.”
Showing love in discipline
Children need to know they are loved even if they make a mistake. Building your child’s confidence includes allowing social and academic consequences when they falter.
“Don’t rescue kids or run interference to avoid consequences,” said Dr. Gerak. “This is how children learn. Let them know that you can make a mistake still be lovable. Be their support.”
Ask them what they learned and what they would do differently next time. Tell them you are proud of them for taking responsibility. Have them figure out what they need to do to correct the problem.
“This gives them the message they aren’t always going to be perfect. No one is. But you have faith they will figure it out and are competent to manage and you are always there for support,” said Dr. Gerak. “This builds their confidence in being able to do things as they grow up, not the message – ‘I can’t, my parent has to fix or do for me.’”
It can be hard task not to take over and do something. Remind kids how you learned and eventually got good at it.
Money can’t buy you love
Sometimes it can be tempting to show love through gifts. But Dr. Gerak thinks that time spent together is the best gift of all.
“Buying children material things will always be temporary,” said Dr. Gerak. “They will move on to what they want next. Your time is immeasurable and the most important way to help a child feel loved.”