In Times of Transition, Our Children Need to Feel Our Love (6 Ways to Help)

Sad kid sitting on floor

Grace shared a story about her older son’s stressful “big brother” transition that demonstrates the healing power of respectful parenting practices.

My younger baby Ben was in NICU and came out with brain damage, so the months after his birth were very stressful. All our time and energy was put into helping him and taking him to appointments.

One day when Ben was about four months old, my elder son (almost four) told me quite calmly that he didn’t feel loved anymore. My initial reaction was to say, “Ah, don’t feel that, we love you so much,” but I thought of you and just stopped. I told him that he must feel very sad and lonely, and that I understood that it must be difficult for him to feel unloved. I asked him when he had last felt loved, and he said it was the day before Ben was born. I reassured him that we loved him very much and told him that I would ask him every day how he felt. We really focused, not on adding extra treats or letting boundaries go, but on speaking kind words, having one-on-one time, giving masses of affection, and explaining in depth what was happening with Ben (for example, exactly what appointment or therapy was happening and why we felt stressed). After four and a half weeks of him feeling unloved, he finally said that yes, he knew he was loved and he felt happy again.

Thank you for giving us the tools to help him through this very difficult time.

– Grace

Grace’s story begins with a brilliant “win.” Her 4-year-old felt comfortable and confident enough to know what he was feeling and to express it. Bravo, Grace!

Grace then implemented these important guidelines:

1. Accept all feelings with openness and curiosity. Let feelings be is easy to say but tough to do when our children are sharing their gripes, negativity, disappointment, anger (especially anger), or anything else that’s uncomfortable to hear. But if we follow the impulse many of us have to make these feelings instantly better, shut them down or otherwise discourage them, we also shut down conversations that are precious parenting gold. Grace’s restraint enabled her and her son to explore his feelings and develop a plan for addressing them. Most of us hope to be the person our child confides in, and meeting these situations bravely and openly is the way to ensure that.

2. Don’t let boundaries and routines slide in order to be “softer” on our children when they’re feeling out of sorts. During stressful situations and transitions, children need the security of our consistent boundaries and structure more than ever.

3. Give bountiful, genuine affection, but not with the intention of fixing our children’s feelings.  Children need to know we’re not trying to hug their feelings away.

4. Set aside one-on-one time. Children need us to show them that nurturing our relationship with them is a priority, and that they don’t need to perform for or entertain us to earn our attention. Our presence is enough.

5. Inform children to the fullest extent possible to prepare them for new or difficult situations so that they can anticipate these events, gain a healthy sense of control, and feel included as a part of our team.  Kids also need us to share our feelings in simple terms so they aren’t left wondering why we’re stressed, perhaps even taking it personally and worrying: Daddy’s mad at me. Children know when we’re going through something. They always know. So, we should fill them in whenever it’s appropriate.

6. Be patient. Let black clouds hang in the air as long as they need to. Through our patience and trust we provide our children invaluable, healthy messages:

  • It’s safe and okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.
  • You can be yourself — share even your darkest thoughts.
  • You are trusted.
  • All feelings pass and you will survive them.

(Thanks to Grace for allowing me to share this story. And again, Bravo!)

I share more about nurturing emotional health in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wow, this brought tears to my eyes. Well done Grace and her little ‘big’ boy, what a wonderful close relationship you have. I hope I can foster such a good relationship with my two little ones.

  2. Ellakereru says:

    This is what my 3 1/2 year old says sometimes lately when she is very upset. “I am unloved”. She has a baby brother too. It breaks my heart to hear this but then I suppose it is good she is verbalizing her feelings.

    1. Yes she is and what a gift! This is the most precious channel to keep open.

  3. This was such a beautiful story and such wonderful advice as always Janet. I sometimes feel that my daughter becomes over shadowed by our son – who has special needs. I know she feels like she is second sometimes and I know that I can’t always find the words that she needs to feel connected again. Thank you so much for this advice Janet.

    1. Thank you, Kate! You are so welcome. It is so simple, but certainly not easy to trust what our children are expressing to us, and just it let it be. Many of us have the false impression that bonding only happens when we’re hugging and laughing together, and yet we can relate to the powerfully validating feeling of being fully accepted and understood. In my experience, that is when the deepest and truest bonding happens.

      1. I think that is so true with adult relationships as well! I feel most connected with my husband when we are sharing the difficult stuff, and when I really feel listened to.

  4. My daughter and I use your guiding wisdom to nurture her first born. We eagerly look forward to the moments that inevitably emerge In order practice your techniques and in the process I am healing the wounds from my youth. I have forgiven my mother and her mother. They didn’t have this loving discipline to guide them. And Even more precious is the forgiving of myself for not knowing how to be a good mother. My daughter and I share common ground now. A beautiful and safe place for all of us to grow up in. At 67 I am beginning to understand.

    1. What a beautiful comment, Mij. Thank you, I am truly honored. I feel the same about my mother and her mother, etc. There’s no blame at all — only gratitude for the gift of awareness Magda Gerber gave me. I’m in my 50’s and still learning. Your daughter and grandchild are very blessed to have you!

    2. This is such a beautiful thing to share. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for sharing this story. I recently chanced upon your blog and I’ve been reading it non stop. Though I’ve been practicing respectful parenting since my now 4 year old was one, we’ve had a series of transitions this year that he’s finding really hard to cope with – a new baby brother who is now 6 months old, his nanny who had been with him since he was 3 months recently got married and left, he joined a new school this month and we are about to move houses. Unfortunately these were unavoidable and I feel terrible for him. Recently, he’s been having lots of meltdowns (post special time) when he says he hates the baby, wants me to send him away, even that he wants him to die. Even though I’ve wanted to cry myself, I’ve tried to be as understanding and empathic as possible. However, he still seems to be having a really hard time. I would really appreciate any advice. I’m close to a breakdown. Thank you..

  6. Thank you this is gold! My question is how to explain to them what we are going through especially when it is obvious. I wonder what to say when I’m having a feeling unrelated to them AND when it is them that has triggered me and I’m frustrated they aren’t doing what I ask. Thanks

  7. This was exactly what I needed right now. My son is transitioning from another home to mine and I know I was beginning to be a bit soft on him when he came home and acted out. I didn’t want to be seen as the mean parent. Instead of taking things personally I actually talked to him about his feelings and we had a much smoother transition. Thank you!

    1. Sounds great, Angela. Well done, and you’re very welcome!

  8. Do you have any advice for talking with children (age 3.75) about death? We have an impending death in the family. We can use lots of things in this article but wonder if you have any specific tools for helping them understand authentically. Thank you.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing. Any advice for going through something similar with younger children who can’t communicate how they’re feeling? My 27-month old son has had a hard time since his brother was born 6 months ago. Fortunately, he loves his little brother, but he’s struggling with the decrease in attention and tends to take it out on me (“go away, mama”). What do you do when they can’t clearly express how they’re feeling and attempts to explain or make them feel better seem to fail?

  10. This is a wonderful story, but I wish it were that easy to implement. With a newborn in the house, it’s hard to give my toddler more 1:1 time than I’m already giving him. He gets lots of 1:1 time from my husband and our long-term nanny, but still has all-out screaming sessions constantly, with any little frustration that he encounters. Being sleep deprived makes it extremely hard to be patient with him, especially during times when the baby is crying and my toddler is screaming or having a tantrum. Everyone makes it sound so easy- but where do I find even more time, when I barely have time to feed myself or shower? And when I return to work full-time in a few weeks it will be even more challenging.

  11. Janet Lansbury – Elevating Child Care thank you, I so needed this! We’re gutted to be loosing our adored childcarer in a couple of weeks, so this is a great steer to prepare our daughter (& selves) for the transition!
    How far in advance would it be recommended to let a child know about a change? (Child is 2yrs, 4 months)


    Hi! is it ok also to informo our kids when we are upset or angry about somthing they did or say, and that we need some time to regain unruffledeness? is it ok to be a bit serious if we cant help it?

  13. My 3 years old adores her baby sister (looking after her, concern when she’s crying, kisses, reads books to) but no one is allowed to touch her, push her pushchair except us. He gets upset when grandma wants to hold her. Is this behaviour something we need to worry about?

    1. Sorry, I’m not sure I understand your question. Can you please clarify?

      1. He doesn’t let anyone go near his sister. He says things like: you can’t hold her, only me, mommy and daddy can, or you can’t take a picture of her. It seems like he is very protective. But it feels like too much for me

  14. We have recently (2 months ago) introduced a baby brother (Sullivan) to my 4 year old son (Mason). Prior to Sully’s arrival we had spoken about all the fun/uncomfortable events for Mason to expect when the baby arrived, so in theory he was ready. The actual event hit ME like a tonne of bricks (emotionally and mostly because I grieved the time Mason and I had spent together prior to my Sully’s arrival) so I can’t even imagine how it affected Mason. If I could only acknowledge my own feelings the way I acknowledge Mason’s then I might be more helpful to him but I think half of his problem is feeling my (as put in articles and podcasts) “rumblings” and me spending too much time trying to fix his feelings. HELP!

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