Expert / 25 October, 2019 / Neda Mulji
Two toddlers walk into a friend’s house at the same time with their mums. One of them runs to hug the host, smiles and expresses happiness at being there. The other one stands by the door, taking it all in. Her mother sighs and says, ‘she takes her time…’ Whilst it is true that children are all wired differently and react differently in circumstances, some of them sometimes just need a different strategy. The little girl standing by the door doesn’t know how to express herself; it’s not that she can’t. Children don’t need a nudge or a push, a sighing parent or a critical bystander. They need structured help – the kind that can give them the surviving tools in a gentle and empathetic way. Children need ‘tools’ for showing love and affection that only an adult can provide.
Love is such a central emotion in human life, yet many of us find it hard to express it even as adults, or can’t find the right tools to communicate it. The journey to acquiring those tools begins right after birth – it is the way a baby is fed, held and cared for that teaches them to trust others enough to give back to them. Research points at a strong correlation between receiving love and attention as a baby to success at school. So what keeps us from expressing love as freely as we would like to? The truth is, many of us haven’t learnt the skill as children. We responded to love given to us; we watched others and picked up what we could but there was no part of parenting that actively tried to teach the skill the way maths and science was taught.
What if we were to change that? What if we could teach our children the tools to help them express love? It would perhaps function like a ‘user’s manual’; the difference is that parents must have a grip on the child’s emotion to be able to help them navigate a world where they not only have to select the people they wish to show love to, but also ‘read’ people to decide who will accept their love and reciprocate. Children hate being disappointed when they express love; their self esteem takes a big hit if they give love and don’t get any in return. The withdrawal that follows after that rejection is sometimes worse than remaining stoic and not showing much love, which is what countless children who grow up in emotionally-constrained homes actually do. There is a huge boundary between not wanting to show love and being afraid to show it. Most children, as research shows, actually fall into the latter category.
Like adults, children are creatures of habit. Greeting, smiling, hugging and showing affection to others are learnt by practising frequently. However, unlike adults, children are experiential learners as they do not have the fully developed frontal lobes that give them the cognitive ability to understand their environment and rationalise their responses to it. They learn by example; an adult who ‘shows’ them how to express love and warmth usually gets a similar response from them. Babies learn to smile and chuckle when we do it frequently with them. They learn to chat when they have chatty adults around them. Most kids who are rough or learn to hit have been in an environment where they have seen it and have learnt to copy it. They notice the action and clutch on to cues that trigger off that reaction. If they see adults reacting calmly to a tough or demanding situation, they too learn to manage their emotions accordingly. Our reactions to children often set the tone for their learnt behaviour.
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Often parents get extremely perturbed when their perfectly well-behaved child throws a tantrum that is unwarranted and comes ‘out of the blue’. The truth is, no tantrum is as ‘random’ as it looks. More often than not, it is a manifestation of an underlying process that has been unfolding for a while, sometimes even days. This could be a feeling of dissatisfaction over lack of attention, or even too much helicopter parenting that has been overwhelming the child.
Sometimes, it is an unspoken need that hasn’t been addressed, something as basic as a lack of sleep, the right kind of food or a medical problem, but at other times it could be more implicit – a perception of implicit bias against them leaving them feeling that someone important to them has been unfair or inattentive.
Children may not need constant attention, but they do need to feel valued at all times. This may mean that their presence in a room needs to be acknowledged, or that someone must invest time and energy in a meaningful conversation with them. For younger children, half an hour of quiet story time with an adult fulfils that need to be valued.
Erratic behaviour from children often leaves parents wondering what they’ve done wrong. Behavioural issues aren’t mostly ‘serious’ and can be easily ‘decoded’ by a close look at what is triggering off the process. In many cases, parents wish to lay down the law by establishing clear boundaries. While this works as a shortcut as a ‘cause and effect’ strategy with younger children, with older ones this can lead to defiance and worsening behaviour, especially if it involves withdrawing privileges that leaves a child reeling with resentment.
Most behavioural issues can be addressed quickly and efficiently by addressing the underlying cause through conversation, bonding with physical affection, a light entertainment to deflect the troubling emotion or simply a compensating move such as a surprise gift or a constructive activity.
The answer is not to withhold affection and privilege, but to make life easier for the child by showing kindness, compassion and empathy. Children who grow up with kind and loving adults are generally calm and giving; they do not overreact when faced with difficult circumstances, nor do they get frustrated easily when others don’t fulfil their expectations.
In childhood, rewards of any kind work far better than punishment – even the most benign ones such as a short time-out or withholding privileges would leave an underlying sense of being overpowered by an adult who has the power to have the child submit to their will. Human nature doesn’t often respond well to submission; most people like to interact with others on an equal footing. We all love being valued, appreciated and understood, and we don’t like to be coerced into changing our behaviour to cater to another’s will.
When kids haven’t successfully acquired the tools to express love, they remain restrained and an emotional vacuum develops in their interaction with adults. Their primal need for love remains unfulfilled and they try to fill the gap with attention-seeking behaviour of all sorts. The most common among these is defiance – the need to exert control. This process sometimes starts very early with a child saying ‘no’ to everything and continues to develop into a hardened form of defiance where every small act becomes a negotiation battle.
This power struggle that children and adults indulge in is often destructive. There are no winners in this; both feel an equal need to establish their own will and both are left confused and devastated when the other does not comply. Repeated power struggles contribute to a pattern in households that keeps building up to a boiling point where a frustrated teenager cannot wait to leave home!
Most parents who have suffered through this saturation point wish they could turn back time, take a step back, revisit their reactions in times when their child showed signs of frustration, anger and defiance. Love may not always be easy to express, but with the right tools, it is the only emotion that has the real capability to strengthen bonds in the hardest of times and sometimes through the worst grief in life.
By Neda Mulji, author of The Love Connection
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