Does your child feel you love her unconditionally?
That is the first of the six “heart connection” questions in the relationship section of the book. This is an unfinished rough draft. Wouldn’t mind some feedback.
Is unconditional love a feeling or a commitment? That is the first question we need to wrestle with. Country and pop songs almost always talk about love in terms of feelings. And not just any feelings. The feelings in these songs can be strong enough to take over our behavior, relationships and lives. While singing about romantic feelings of love and loss can make a song powerful and emotionally gripping, those feelings are not something we should base our behavior, relationships, or lives on. Not if we want to have stable and mature relationships we can depend on. Feelings come and go as those songs remind us all too often. If our relationships are to last, there needs to be something more than feelings holding those relationships together.
No, I am not a party pooper. I am not against romance, powerful emotions, feelings of love, etc. I love those things. They make life worth living. They are awesome. Country and pop music can be great fun. They can stir up wonderful and powerful emotions. We should enjoy those exhilarating feelings for all they are worth, but when it comes to real relationships, we need to move past those feelings onto more solid ground.
When it comes to relationships, emotions are the frosting on the cake. They are not the cake. Commitment is the cake. Commitment is the cake we put the frosting on.
The problems start when we depend on or are controlled by our emotions. This applies to all relationships, not just romantic relationships. Think about it this way. Do you want people to love you and treat you well only when their feelings make them “feel” like it? What if they are having a bad day? What if they have very little control over their emotions? Where is the security in that relationship?
Being in a relationship that is dependent on the other person’s feelings of the moment can be quite stressful. What if you have a bad hair day? What if you are a little cranky or lose your job or have a runny nose? Do you really want the important people in your life loving you only when you are at your absolute best? That is some kind of crazy pressure.
That is not the kind of pressure we should ever put on our children to receive our love. They definitely deserve something a little more dependable and secure than our emotions. That leaves us with the other option, commitment.
Are we going to base our love for our children on commitment or feelings? Feelings come and go, but commitment and doing the right thing should remain steady. Lives and relationships should not be high-jacked by unpredictable or undisciplined emotions. We need to have or develop the strength of character to act according to our commitments. That is the foundation of emotional maturity - acknowledging our emotions, getting control of our emotions, and doing what we know is right.
I have observed this wonderful result many times in many different people including myself - when we make a decision based on commitment, when we love through our actions with determination and consistency, eventually our emotions tend to catch up and join in. How cool is that?
Well-developed emotional maturity or not, there will always be those times when we are not “feeling it.” That is normal. It is nothing to feel guilty about or be afraid of. You might even have a moment when you look at your children and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Especially on those days, we need to keep it together and keep on loving through our actions no matter what.
That means there will be times we need to approach our children out of our commitment to love instead of our feelings of love. We must ignore any unhelpful emotions and push through with actions that support our commitment to love. If we do that, it will speak directly to our children’s hearts because they will know we will love them even on our bad days. They will know we will love them even on their bad days. We will love them even when they are not so “lovable” at the moment. Now that is security! Children who are loved this way tend to flourish because they can approach life from the safety and security of that love. If we are honest, we all long for that kind of security and love.
If we love our children conditionally, they do not have that kind of security. Instead, they are forced to play the manipulative, conditional love game to receive our love. That can cause all kinds of problems: anxiety, resentment, insecurity, damaged identity, damaged relationships, and looking for inappropriate love somewhere else.
“Dad only seems to care about me when I do well in sports.”
“Last report card I got good grades. My parents hugged me and praised me and took me out for a special dinner. This time I got a bad grade in science, and they hardly talked to me for weeks. I must be a big disappointment.”
“Mom is so nice to me when I wear the clothes she likes. She just glares at me when I wear my ripped jeans. Why does she hate me when I dress the way I like?”
“My parents wouldn’t love me if they knew what I was really like.”
As parents, we must do better than that. Our children need a secure love they can depend on. We need to be that one place they can always turn to. We should always love them, and we should always look out for what is in their best interest.
Sometimes we will find ourselves in situations that require us to overcome immediate feelings of anger and/or disappointment. Even so, our children still need our unconditional love and reassurance. When things settle down, we can follow through with some loving accountability if needed.
“I broke my mom’s favorite coffee mug right after she told me to stop playing with it. I could see she was too upset to talk. I mean, she was really unhappy! She just looked at the ground and shook her head. When she recovered a bit, she hugged me and told me she still loved me anyway. I felt so horrible. Then she informed me I would clean up the mess perfectly and replace the cup with my own money. Weirdly, that made me feel better.”
“I could tell how disappointed dad was with my behavior, but he managed a smile and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘You know I love you, right? This does not change that at all, but we will talk about this we get home. One way or another, you are going to make this right.’ ”
If we blow it and react badly before we catch ourselves, we can always recover. Hopefully, we have not said anything too hurtful. We simply calm down, apologize, and remind the child of how much we love them. “I am so sorry I yelled at you. You are way more important to me than that coffee mug. . . .” Once we have done that, and our child has received and accepted our apology, we can move on to any necessary development & discipline.
Sometimes our children go through seasons where they really struggle. Sometimes they are much harder to love during those times. We need to make sure no matter what else happens they know we still love them. That may require real effort on our part, but our children need our unconditional love even more at these times. We still need to keep up with our loving accountability, but with a greater sensitivity and a little more grace.
Our young teenager just had his first romantic heart break, or he just got cut from the basketball team. He knows we really liked that girl, or we really wanted him to make the team. He seems lost and intent on taking it out on everybody including the dog, or he just retreats to his room and locks the door. We must find ways to let him know we still love him without embarrassing or requiring too much of him. We could make his favorite dinner, or go do his favorite activity, etc. We should be available, but not give advice that is not asked for, just yet. We also need to lovingly and firmly remind him he must treat people with respect no matter how upset he is, and he still has to do his chores.
“I’m not sure what you’re feeling right now, but I know you are upset. I am so sorry. For what it’s worth, I want you to know my love for you has not changed one bit. This will take some time. I am here to listen if you want to talk. In the mean time, you know you have to be nice to your sister and that poor old dog. Just like my love for you, that has not changed either.” Please tell me if there is anything I can do to help.
As our children get older, they can head off in directions we are not at all happy about. Many times this includes issues we can no longer control: hanging out with an unhealthy crowd, smoking, drinking and drugs, sexual activity, dropping out of school, even criminal activity. Depending on our relationship and parenting history with that child, we can still have tremendous influence on these issues, but ultimately the child will decide. We may have to face some very difficult choices: asking them to move out of our home, no longer supporting them, or putting strong conditions on the support we do give. This is where it can get confusing. Giving consequences and putting conditions on how we support our children is not the same as putting conditions on our love. We must not confuse our unconditional love with loving accountability. They are different, and they serve different purposes.
It is critical our children know we still love them, and we will keep loving them whether they change their ways or not. That is the key; we will keep loving them no matter what. That is what they need from us, and it gives us the best possible chance to influence things for the better.
I know this is a little heavy, but it needs to be talked about. I have coached parents with heartbreaking issues including heroin addicted children. We always lead with our unconditional love while doing our best with our loving accountability. If our efforts to hold our children accountable do not achieve what we had hoped for, we still need to love our children unconditionally.
I have seen the tears, and I have felt the heartbreak. This is what I have learned. Unconditional love never makes things worse, and sometimes it contributes directly to needed change. I have seen unconditional love save a child. I have never seen withholding love save anything.