Most parents would never question that they love their children wholeheartedly — even when their little darling has done a lipstick drawing on the wall, won't eat their vegies or sleep in their own bed, or thumps their brother. Even though we might get annoyed, we still love them absolutely.
However, children don't always feel our love because 'love' is a difficult concept for children and even teens to grasp. In a way, children see love as connection — where they sense that you not only see them, but that you feel them invisibly and strongly.
Many people talk about having quality time with their children and, while that is a good thing, it might only come around once a week — or once a month in our busy society.
I am more inclined to recommend micro-moments of loving connectedness or building 'love bridges' which happen often, rather than just focusing on quality time created by an adult at a time convenient to them.
Children live in the present moment and when we come and join them, even briefly, in that amazing place it makes their hearts sing. When we can come to them and share in their childlike view of the world, children know we love them.
Many parents who have to work tell me how they struggle with feeling guilty that they are unable to spend a lot of time with their children. The same goes for those who work away from home like FIFOs (fly-in-fly-out workers) in our mining towns and those in the military services.
There are many ways, some really tiny, that build a heart connection.
I was blessed to spend hours of my childhood in the ute driving around the farm with my dad as a captive audience for my endless chatter and questioning about everything. No wonder he struggled with his hearing as he got older, however I knew I was loved.
The concept of meeting children with a specific intention to nurture connection through how we interact with them comes from Canadian developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld's work, especially his book, Hold On to Your Kids.
Neufeld believes so much of the way we live our lives today creates experiences of separation for our young children, rather than experiences that connect and bond us with our children, which he calls bridges. It is a different way of explaining 'attachment' or the innate need of every child to feel strongly bonded to a significant caring adult.
When this occurs repeatedly, children's trust in us is broken and the relationship will be weakened. I have renamed Neufeld's bridges "love bridges" — which build stronger heart connections with our children to ensure that they feel safe and secure within their families.
If you can keep in mind that, when you are dealing with challenging behaviour in your child, your priority is to work at the relationship first and the behaviour second; this will ensure that you will be on the right track to use discipline in a way that benefits everyone. And when children feel connected they are less likely to need to act out to gain power or attention.
So how can you build love bridges with your children?
- Wink at children, make funny faces, give them high fives or thumbs up – non-verbal messages of connection.
- Parents can give small symbols to hold onto in their absence like kisses in the child's hands.
- Create a unique bedtime ritual… "I love you more than…".
- Send them rainbows when you are away.
- Create a small jar of captured kisses.
- Create an imaginary giant protector/guardian angel to watch over your child.
- Have a picture of you with your child in a locket or plastic sleeve they can keep in their bag.
- Record readable stories or bed time rituals on smart phones if you're away.
- Take small bites out of their toast or a bite out of their sandwich.
- Leave notes or funny pictures in their lunch box or on the bathroom mirror.
- Create moments of lightness and laughter often.
- Hide special messages around the house when you go away.
- Spontaneously join them in drawing or colouring in.
- Join them on the couch randomly to watch their favourite show.
- Engage in spontaneous hugs, cuddles and tickles.
Children who feel loved through a strong heart connection will feel safer and more secure in their world – even after they have been disciplined or sanctioned for breaking boundaries or being mean and unkind. They will also be calmer and this allows them to behave better and learn better.
The more micro-moments of connection we add into our homes, the happier everyone will be. So step over the pile of washing, ignore the unanswered emails and go build some love bridges with your kids – it is never too late!
As an adolescent told me once: "I would prefer it if my parents opened their heart more than their wallets."
Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator, speaker and mother of four sons. http://www.maggiedent.com