This content includes some of the proven concepts based on positive youth development and resilience and combines new research with expert opinion to help parents consider how to approach these tough questions. Perspectives from over 500 teen interviews are also part of this groundbreaking work.
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|Publisher:||American Academy of Pediatrics|
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The Protective Force of Parental Love
From the moment your baby grasped your finger, you knew you were forever connected. You felt a kind of love people tried to explain to you but was unimaginable until you held this sacred being in your arms. As you put your child in the infant seat to leave the hospital, suddenly you became instinctually aware of your baby's vulnerability and knew it was your job to protect her. Any dreams you ever had for yourself paled in comparison to those you now held for your child.
A supportive nurturing connection between parent and child offers the deepseated security so critical to well-being and healthy development. This connection is the bedrock of the serve-response relationship that starts in infancy. First, babies (toddlers, children, and even adolescents!) do something to get our attention (serve). Then, when we respond to their action, they learn what they do matters, and this is an underpinning of the sense of control over their lives that healthy children need. As we respond with awe to the miracles of development and affectionately to the excitement our children experience with every new discovery, we reinforce their curiosity and love of learning. In turn, their passion for knowledge will build their intelligence. Parental nurturing has even been found to be highly protective through the worst of times. Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to negatively affect health and well-being far into adulthood, unless a responsive loving adult stands solidly alongside the child through even traumatic circumstances. This makes our parental role as resilience-builders crucial to helping our children remain strong, and even to gain wisdom, through life's challenges.
"Always promise love. That's the promise you made when you decided to have a child."
— 16-year-old female, New Jersey
Love Without Conditions
Love only offers security if it is given without conditions. This is certainly true for children, but it remains true for people throughout their lifespans. When children are loved unconditionally, they know they are worthy based on their being, not their doing. Unconditional love allows people to take chances when they need to adapt to new circumstances because they needn't fear disapproval, recrimination, or abandonment. They are safe. They are acceptable. They are valued, even when they doubt themselves. Ideally, parents are an unwavering source of this essential ingredient of stability and well-being, but the more supportive adults are in a child's life, the more firmly rooted and unshakeable his security.
Unconditional love doesn't mean unconditional approval. Part of being a loving parent is being clear about what is acceptable and what is not. But we can reject a behavior entirely while simultaneously loving the child fully. Love must never be withdrawn or threatened to be withheld based on a behavior or disappointing performance. Rather, part of loving is being present to mold our children into their best selves — not our vision of who they should be but who they are. Unconditional love is not based on performance; it is based on a child's inherent worth. Our children cannot be seen as reflections of us. Frankly, when we see them as representing us, we may never find them satisfactory, especially if we have doubts of our own value. We must be proud of who they truly are and not of the bumper stickers we place on our cars based on what they do.
Your child must know that you are not going anywhere, no matter what. Your presence is the one thing to be counted on, even if the rest of the world seems unpredictable.
"Remind them that you loved them from the moment they were born — when they were tiny, feeble, and useless. If you loved them then, you can love them now."
— 18-year-old female, Texas
What Happens When We Put Conditions on Our Affection and Attention?
Just as unconditional love is the root of security, questioning whether one is genuinely loved is a source of pain and uneasiness. We are designed to need others; we are driven to reinforce the sense that we belong. From the moment children gaze into their parents' eyes, they need to draw the comfort that comes from a stable attachment. When we were infants and toddlers, we did whatever it took to gain our parents' attention. We did the same as teenagers, for better or worse. Our fundamental need was to know we were cared about. Our moments of greatest angst, or perhaps ongoing sources of internal conflict, derive from questioning whether we were acceptable.
We hope children perform well because it generates self-satisfaction. Ideally, they put in their greatest effort because they are internally motivated to achieve growth. When, on the other hand, their performance is to gain approval, it generates anxiety. This unsettling anxiety might translate into perfectionism or a young person choosing to feign indifference. Perfectionism destroys many of the elements a person needs to be successful. On the other hand, young people who invest their energy in pretending they don't care, usually because they care too much, will shun the very effort needed to ensure their success. Or worse, they will take on risky behaviors that deaden their senses so they need not experience their real feelings.
It Is Not About What You Feel But Rather How Your Child Interprets Your Messages
There is not a single parent reading these words who does not deeply love her child. Not one reader is intentionally putting conditions on his love. To the extent that any of us are holding our children to strict standards, it is undoubtedly with the best of intentions to make our expectations clear.
The last thing I would ever do is imply I could offer you advice on how to love your child unconditionally. The best I can do is underscore the vital importance of such love and gently guide you to reflect on the possibility that your child may be misinterpreting your intentions as you guide her toward success.
"Families should make time to be together. They have to slow down and get back to basics."
— 14-year-old male, Texas
Your love is not in question. But you may want to consider if the way in which you convey your high expectations might inadvertently convey a message of conditional acceptance. Your messages of disappointment can be conveyed by word, deed, or body language. Your intention is the starting point, but what really matters are the messages your child receives.
If your child feels like his behaviors elicit judgment, good or bad, he will feel his relationship with you is on shaky ground; he will view the security of his connection as dependent on his performance (for more on the importance of not judging performance, see Chapter 5, High Expectations Gone Awry: The Problem With Focusing Mainly on Academic Performance). I am not suggesting you can never praise or criticize but that you do so in a way that is loving and honors the potential for growth.
It Is Not About What You Feel But Rather if Your Child Knows What You Feel
Some parents feel love is something that is shown, never discussed. They worry words such as I love you will spoil their child. Rest assured that loving words and displays of affection do not spoil children; they only make them sweeter.
One mother shared a story of why it is so important to her that she consistently and clearly communicates her affection toward her teenaged son and daughter:
As a child, I never heard the comforting words I love you from my mother, and I missed them terribly. After I became a parent, I summoned the courage to ask her why she never told me how she felt. She replied, "Well, my mother taught me to never say that to your child. If you do, your child will take advantage of you." My mother went on to tell me that she showed me she loved me by how she cared for me. That may be, but I remember longing for those words as a child. I choose to tell my children I love them every day, and as a result I have 2 beautiful, confident children. There is no price tag on the words I love you. Today, as adults, my mother and I now say, "I love you," to each other every day. I believe she is now no longer afraid to say it because she saw how secure and gracious my kids turned out to be.
"Parents should always have love that's unconditional for their child. It doesn't matter what their kid did or does; a parent should alwaaaaaaays have unconditional love for their child, and they should tell them that."D
— 17-year-old female, Pennsylvania
"Unconditional love should always be there, no matter what they do, because if children's parents don't love them, they might think that they are unlovable and that if no one loves them there is no point in living. Children should feel that no matter what they do, their parents will always love them, because that is what parents are for."
— 14-year-old female, Massachusetts
Men, in particular, might have trouble with the language of love. There is no doubt in my mind that men have the same capacity to love their children as women do. Nevertheless, society's traditional views of masculinity do not include nurturance. Thankfully, our culture is evolving, and men are now freer to show the intensity of their feelings toward their children. In my view, we will have a stronger and emotionally healthier society when caring for and about children is considered the pinnacle of masculinity.
Many men were raised by fathers who may have displayed loving actions but rarely, if ever, expressed their feelings verbally. Their affection was understood by the physicality of their presence. They stood solidly at the sports games and beamed with pride at the recitals. They were human jungle gyms, wrestled with their kids, tousled their daughters' hair, and gave their sons attaboy squeezes on their neck. Loving words were absent.
The challenge for men raised this way is they may not have learned how powerful and meaningful loving words can be. This becomes a problem when they are separated by distance from their children, whether because of divorce, military deployment, or frequent business travel. Neither the physicality of presence, nor a reassuring pat on the shoulder, works through Skype. Words are sometimes all we have. Again, there is nothing more masculine than a man who knows how to tell his children they are cherished.
There is nothing more any parent can do to raise a successful, moral child or to foster a secure, long-standing connection than to express love for that child unconditionally.
"As someone who struggles with the fear of disappointment, I always know that even if I do make perhaps not the best decision, as I have done before, my mother is always there to back me up. After some explanation of why this may or may not have been the best choice for me, she will always tie it back to her love and support for me."
— 19-year-old female, Texas
More Thoughts From Teens
My parents expecting me to do well makes me want to do even better than they think I will. Knowing that whatever I choose to do well won't affect my parents' love for me is what motivates me to follow my dreams. Yes, my parents might want me to do certain things, but they don't FORCE me to do it. Forcing your teen to do something makes them want to do the opposite. An example of how a parent could communicate in a way that both offers unconditional love and holds their child to high expectations would be saying, "Of course I'll support anything you choose to do, but I want you to always do your best in what you choose, and choose it for the right reason."
— 17-year-old female, Pennsylvania
Parents should understand that things they love will fail at times, so they must be forgiving but not accepting of the failure. Parents should be allies and always willing to support their child but not be a friend. So they should also encourage them positively. It is nice when a parent leaves a little "love you" Post-it or says that they are proud of how he or she is handling setbacks. ... Sometimes parents' love gets lost in translation over time, and we kids just need to hear it once in a while.
— 17-year-old female, Illinois
I think unconditional love should function like the confidentiality clauses at doctors — unconditional support and committed confidentiality unless there is a risk of harm to oneself or others. My B on my report card won't ruin my life; it doesn't mean it should be ignored, but it also doesn't mean that I need to be yelled at over it. If I don't get into the college of my dreams, that is MY problem, not my parents'. The expectations of unconditional love should be clear: if you hurt or consider hurting yourself or someone around you, the love is put on hold until safety and equilibrium are reached. A teen is constantly feeling like no one likes them, and the last thing they need to think is that their parents won't love them or will think less of them if they don't make varsity or get a 5.0 and a full ride. There are things I didn't tell my father because I didn't want him to look down on me; I thought that he'd love me less if he knew about the indiscretions I'd made in my personal life. I feared that he'd cut off communication if I admitted I'd snuck out and gone to a party or that I'd kissed a guy I barely knew. I feared that the person I was wasn't the person my dad wanted me to be, and, thus, I ended up lying to cover. Parents need to make clear where they stand on morals and expectations, but they need to make clearer that their love won't cease unless someone is in harm's way.
I was raised to who I am through unconditional love, tough love, and high expectations. To this day, I do not want to disappoint my parents with anything that I do, even if it's a bad grade. It is more of my own conscience that I do not want to disappoint my parents, because they have always told me as long as I am happy with who I am, they will be too. But I can't help but want to make them happy, go to college, graduate, and become a child they are proud of. I think parents need to realize that setting high expectations is sometimes a lot of pressure on their kids. A parent should always have unconditional love for their kids and never "revoke" it when they mess up. Children, teens especially, need to know that through everything, whether it is a rebelling stage, drugs, partying, grades slipping, relationship problems, drama — whatever it is — they need to know parents will always provide them with unconditional love and help them with whatever it may be.
— 19-year-old female, TexasCHAPTER 2
Why Does Love Sometimes Feel Like a One-way Street?
It might be frustrating for you to hear me preaching about the power of unconditional love, while your teen daughter sometimes finds the way you breathe embarrassing.
If you are a parent of a preteen, I want you to be prepared that there may be a period of time coming when you will be asked to practice being invisible. During these moments, your child's behavior can push you away or make you reflexively withhold your love just because it is often unrequited. I am covering this here so you will never make the expression of your love conditional on how your teen is treating you.
If you understand the following 4 key points, you'll make it through this phase and remain as close as ever with your child, even as she works to convince herself that you are not needed.
They Have to Distinguish Themselves From Us
It is hard to fathom how your loving, huggable child who had consistently expressed he wanted to be you when he grew up suddenly finds you totally awkward. A good starting point is to remember that adolescents need to focus on figuring out the answer to the all-encompassing "Who am I?" question. Part of that answer has to be, "Not you!" It's hard to come up with that answer when your child knows he looks like you, talks like you, walks like you, and may even agree with your political views. All teens are also answering the "Am I normal?" question by looking around and comparing themselves to others. They exist in the imaginary theater ("all the world's a stage, and I am the main actor"), believing that others must be scrutinizing them the same way they are observing others. Your teen has enough trouble constantly managing being on display, without also having to worry about what other people might be thinking about you. Therefore, your teen believes it would be easier if you could learn to be around ("to drive and stuff") without being seen.
Sometimes They Have a Right to Be Mad at Us
Adolescence is a time when an individual moves from having concrete to abstract thought. Concrete thinkers see the world as it is presented to them. Abstract thinkers can see the what-ifs and sometimes get frustrated by what is. It is, therefore, a time of great idealism, as well as righteous indignation. Sometimes we are the objects of the accompanying frustration.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Raising Kids to Thrive"
Copyright © 2015 Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, Ilana Ginsburg, and Talia Ginsburg.
Excerpted by permission of American Academy of Pediatrics.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Unconditional Love Versus High Expectations 1
What You Will Learn 1
Chapter 1 The Protective Force of Parental Love 3
Chapter 2 Why Does Love Sometimes Feel Like a One-way Street? 11
Chapter 3 Can We Be Too Connected to Our Children? 17
Chapter 4 Setting High Expectations for Success and Morality 21
Chapter 5 High Expectations Gone Awry: The Problem With Focusing Mainly on Academic Performance 31
Chapter 6 Setting Expectations That Promote Success 41
Chapter 7 Setting Clear Expectations About Risky Behaviors 61
Moments for Personal Reflection or Serious Discussion 64
Part 2 Protection Versus Learning From Life's Lessons 67
What You Will Learn 67
Chapter 8 Protection Versus Preparation 71
Chapter 9 The Upside of Failure 83
Chapter 10 Navigational Strategies 97
Chapter 11 Preparing Your Child for a Stressful World 117
Chapter 12 Loving Boundaries 133
Chapter 13 Effective Monitoring 147
Chapter 14 Parenting Toward Lifelong Interdependence 163
Moments for Personal Reflection or Serious Discussion 168
Part 3 The Voice of Youth 171
Chapter 15 Eliciting the Youth Perspective 175
Chapter 16 The Youth Perspective: Love Versus Expectations 183
Chapter 17 The Youth Perspective: Protection Versus Trust 201
Part 4 Rebooting: Moving Toward the Relationship You Hope to Have 211
Chapter 18 Getting Started: Laying the Groundwork for Productive Communication 213
Chapter 19 Creating the Space for Change 219
Chapter 20 Communication 101: Listening and Talking 231
Chapter 21 Communication 201: It's More Than What You Say 237
Chapter 22 Guiding Our Kids to Own Their Solutions 241
Chapter 23 A Chapter for Young People: First Steps Toward a Better Relationship With Your Parents 247
Parting Thoughts 261