Today I want to explore what it means to love unconditionally. To quote Marriage and Family Therapist, Dr. John Amodeo:
"Children need to be loved without conditions. As they struggle through life, we need to be unendingly patient — taking many deep breaths, and offering guidance repeatedly. Embodying a consistently loving, accepting presence, we create a climate for safe attachment." - Psychology today
You can learn more about Attachment Theory here, but the basic idea is, the more effectively you can respond to your child's needs, the safer they feel and the more secure their attachment is to you. A securely attached child is more likely to follow your lead, to look up to you, to be influenced by you, and to feel comforted by your presence.
A securely attached child is also free to wander, to explore and come back to you for guidance and comfort as they navigate the unknown. This combination of freedom and safety is the essence of a secure bond.
When there's an emotional storm
So what does unconditional love look like when emotions are tense and tempers are hot? How do you feel loving toward your child when they are being defiant, disrespectful, or unkind? How can you accept their unacceptable behavior or poor choices when they act against your core values?
The answers I hear consistently to these questions follows a pattern more or less like this:
"Of course I love my child unconditionally, but..."
What comes after the "but" varies, and essentially, is used as an excuse to justify a dysfunctional response to your child's needs:
"... when I'm tired after a long day, it's really hard for me to control my temper."
"... when they both start yelling, the only way I can get them to stop is by yelling back."
"...I can handle X behavior for so long before I lose my cool. Then we have a big argument."
"...I have zero tolerance for X behavior. It is unacceptable and against my values."
What's behind statements like this is the belief that your child is responsible for regulating your mood and actions, not you.
That you need your child to act a certain way in order for you to stay calm and emotionally regulated. That it's their job to fulfill your needs, and not the other way around. When we shine a light on these beliefs, it becomes clear just how irrational this line of logic is.
There's no shame or blame here. We're only human. As humans, we are emotional animals who physiologically react to situations that stir up our emotions. All of us have triggers, all of us lose our cool, and all of us make mistakes.
But that doesn't let us off the hook.
How to communicate unconditional love through your actions
The truth is, adults have a stronger nervous system. Your brain has had time to develop and your executive functions have had time to mature - a process that continues well into your late 20's.
Executive functions allow you to reflect on the consequences of your actions, to regulate your emotional impulses, to process information, to plan ahead, and to solve problems. Your child develops these skills over time through your consistent modeling.
When you mirror your child's emotions and dysfunctional behavior, you are unknowingly handing them power over your emotional state. You are showing them at that moment, you do not have control over your own emotional impulses.
That's why, punishing, shaming, blaming, or bribing your child to act differently is ineffective in shaping your child's behavior. The only way to see change is to consistently model the behaviors you want your child to reflect back to you.
When you practice emotional regulation (especially when your child is emotionally dysregulated), you create a safe space where your child feels free from judgement, shame, or fear. When you can stay emotionally regulated while your child is dysregulated, you can help them co-regulate with you. You can help them see that they too can learn how to manage their big emotions.
Showing your child unconditional love means recognizing their dysfunctional behavior as a sign that they need your love and guidance in that moment. It means accepting and loving your child exactly how they are right now without any conditions.
It is in those most challenging moments that your patience is most important - to show your child you love them unconditionally, not just when their behaviors meet your expectations.
Good enough is good enough
Remember, you're not striving for perfection, but consistency. As a general rule of thumb, you want to have about three positive interactions for each perceived negative interaction.
There will be times when your child tests your strength, your patience, and your love. And there will be times when you don't have the strength, patience, or flexibility in the moment to navigate that challenge as calmly as you want. There will be times when you are overwhelmed by your emotions, by grief, by fear, or anger; moments when you can't find the right words, or choose hurtful ones.
These will be your greatest opportunities to show your child how you own your emotions and take responsibility for your actions. That being vulnerable is your greatest strength. That it is overcoming life's challenges together that brings you closer and makes both of you more resilient.
PS, some photos from We Rise LA's gallery.