I’m a hugger. Perhaps overly so, if that’s possible. I was reminded of my demonstrative tendencies recently when my 14-year-old’s tribe of buddies arrived at our home, each expecting his customary warm embrace from me. It was only slightly awkward when two boys walked in that I didn’t know as well. We chuckled a little as I went ahead and hugged them anyway, and they seemed okay with it. You really couldn’t ask for a sweeter bunch of guys.
Offering hugs to greet, say goodbye, or express gratitude or affection will probably always be my go-to, but I’ve learned a far more profound way to connect with young children that I highly recommend. It’s simply seeing them — seeing into their hearts and souls through the lens of our unconditional acceptance. It’s especially powerful when kids are struggling or their behavior is defiant, aggressive, or otherwise disagreeable.
Connecting soul to soul with our children comes easily in the good times when we’re sharing a laugh or perhaps appreciating their latest triumph, when we might lock eyes and quietly acknowledge: “Wow, that was so hard for you, but you did it all yourself.” (That response tends to be much more encouraging than a static “Good job!” stamp of approval, because it feels more intimate and genuine.)
Far more challenging for us is to see our children when they need the reassurance of our connection most – when their feelings or behaviors aren’t so pretty and might even trigger emotional reactions in us. But it is in these uncomfortable, painful and, sometimes, shameful moments that I believe our children have the most acute need to feel seen and accepted. If they were able to articulate this wish, they might request:
Just for a moment see me…
With soft, receptive eyes
With openness, interest, and a desire to understand
In my frustration, aggression, rage, jealousy, failure, sadness, while you set and hold limits on my behavior
With trust that it’s okay for me to feel whatever I feel
With unconditional acceptance, love, and if at all possible, like
With a perspective so clear that it cuts through the haze of your anger, annoyance, sadness, pity, guilt, fear, resentment, or other concerns, because if I have to worry about you, I can’t share me…
Notice the curiosity in my limit-testing, the innocence in my defiance, the fear in my aggression.
Recognize that my impulses have gotten the better of me. I’ve lost self-control and need your help, guidance, protection.
Accept all these unpleasant sides of me that don’t make you proud, realizing that underneath all of them is fear that I’m bad and will lose you.
Will we always be able to be accepting and nonjudgmental? Of course not. We are not saints. These suggestions are not must or always, but rather an ideal to strive toward. Again, we won’t be perfect, but committing just a little to accepting rather than judging our children goes a long way in fostering emotional security and resilience. Seeing takes only a mindful moment, but it can make a lifetime of difference in nurturing parent-child relationships.
My own father could not have been kinder or more unconditionally loving. He always told me how beautiful and wonderful I was and gave me an abundance of kisses and hugs. However, for reasons of his own that I eventually came to understand (I’m certain he did the best he could), he never seemed to actually see me. I had the vague sense growing up that he didn’t really know me at all, and that he might even have difficulty distinguishing me from my three sisters. Objectively, I knew this couldn’t be the case, but I was left with the feeling that I was not really anyone to him – that we were adoring, affectionate strangers to each other. This may be why later in life I got caught up in seeking endless validation.
My experience with my father might also be at least part of the reason Magda Gerber’s parenting approach struck such a deep chord in me. Through Magda I learned the power of observation. I learned that to see clearly meant putting aside my personal hornet’s nest of feelings, concerns, and projections so that I could discover and connect with my child. In Blue Sky Thinking I describe seeing my three month old daughter for the very first time. In that moment, my feelings of failure as a new mother were overshadowed by hope. Seeing my daughter was an indescribably precious gift to both of us.
Children will sometimes express to us their need to feel seen by saying something like, “I’m going to hit Sally.” It gives them a great sense of relief and security when we can meet their gaze with acceptance and calmly respond, “Ah, thank you for letting me know you might feel like hitting Sally. I’ll always try to be there in time to keep both of you safe. Please let me know if you feel the urge so I can help.”
Or when they tell us they don’t like the baby and we make eye contact, nod, and acknowledge, “I hear that. Wow, that certainly makes a lot of sense. I always want you to tell me those things.” Our choice of words doesn’t really matter. Gently seeing does.
When parents request my help, whether in person, via message or during a phone consultation, their issues are often alleviated by simply making the effort to see their children a tiny bit more. It can be so easy to get stuck in setting limits, reiterating rules, explaining why our children shouldn’t do such-and-such, or why we need them to do this, that and the other. Seeing our child provides us with the perspective we need to be able to understand what drives their challenging behaviors, and the practice of seeing can actually prevent them from happening in the first place.
Hugs rock, but feeling seen is feeling loved.
I share more in my books, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
And here’s a recent podcast that touches on the power of seeing:
(Photo by Lance Shields on Flickr)