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I recently wrote a post which discussed the importance of physical warmth but there is a second kind of warmth that is just as important and perhaps arguably more so…emotional warmth. Emotional warmth is an extremely complicated concept. You might not think so. In fact, you might be thinking that if you simply love your child and show them kindness and respect through your parenting, then you are meeting their emotional warmth needs. Not so. Emotional warmth encompasses a lot more than most parents realize. Let’s start with the basics.
The definition of warmth (as it relates to emotional warmth) is the quality of being intimate and attached. It also suggests love, generosity, sensitivity, kindness, friendliness, unconditional acceptance, and fondness. Emotional warmth specially means that you as the parent are ensuring that the child’s emotional needs are met giving the child a sense of being specially valued and ensuring the child’s requirements for secure, stable and affectionate relationships with significant adults, with appropriate sensitivity and responsiveness to the child’s needs. This goes far beyond just physically showing your child affection through hugs, cuddling, and general tenderness. Emotional warmth involves parents’ expectations of their children and how they relay these to their child. It involves how we respond to our child in any given circumstance or situation.
I stumbled across a great article by Jan Hunt from the Natural Child Project. She discussed the ten ways that we (parents) misunderstand children. I think that her list is a great starting point to expand my discussion on and clarify exactly what I mean by emotional warmth. Her list allows me to look at how some parents are not meeting their child’s emotional warmth needs and then provide examples on how to reevaluate your interactions with your child. Although I am using Ms. Hunt’s list, the comments about each of her ten points are my own ideas.
1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. This cultural norm is detrimental in providing children with emotional warmth. Although every child will progress through the various developmental stages at a different rate, most children will hit the same major milestones around the same general time and become capable of behaving in a certain way. We as parents must remember to savor each developmental stage and to nurture and help hold the space for our children as they grow and explore their new abilities and awareness of the world around them. “Ssshing” a crying baby because WE (the parents) do not want to hear the mournful cry is NOT providing an environment of emotional warmth. Asking a 2 ½ year old to sit still and be patient while we visit with our adult friends is not respecting the child’s abilities. Requiring a 3-4 year old to help with chores is also not holding the emotional space for that child. We are asking our children to do things that are beyond their developmental capabilities and in turn we will often become frustrated, annoyed, angry, impatient, etc… when they child is unable to comply with our requests and demands. Parents need to allow their children to act their age and recognize the value in nurturing and working with each developmental stage. Sooth, cuddle, and softly sing to the crying infant so that he or she feels loved and safe. Include your toddler in the visit with your friend by taking a moment here or there to address his or her needs. Or better yet – leave your child home! Allow your three and four year old to help with household chores but do not expect or require them to do any specific task or to do so in the manner in which you do the same task. Children in this age bracket love to help, so slow your pace down, let the child work beside you with no strings attached. Thank them sincerely for their help and do let them know how much you ENJOYED being with them and doing that specific task together. Also, make sure that you are going about your daily household tasks in a joyful manner. Show your children how much you enjoy giving them a happy home to live in!
2. We become angry when a child fails to meet our needs. This infuriates me because I see it so often. A screaming child is strapped into a grocery cart being told to “hush,” “pipe down,” “hang on,” etc… The child is between 2-3 years old and is clearly tired and in need of a nap. The parent starts in with the bribery. The child continues screaming and crying. The parent gets mad, yells at the child, and the child cries louder. Another scenario is the long car trip. Children of all ages (adults too) have a very difficult time just sitting in a car as a passenger waiting what seems like an eternity to get to some mystical destination. (Remember – young children have no concept of the passage of time, how many miles away someplace is, or how long it might take to get somewhere. For all they know, around the corner and an hour away are the same thing). It is unreasonable for a parent to get upset with a child who cannot do whatever we are expecting them to do. A child is only capable of acting their age. Do not expect a 2 year old to act like a 10 year old and sit and read books for a four hour car ride. Expecting more than our child is capable of will only lead to parents getting irritated and angry. Understanding and embracing your child’s age-based limits will cultivate emotional warmth for your child.
3. We mistrust the child’s motives. Most child development experts will agree that children do not have the ability to devise a motive to their actions until around the age of nine (9). There are exceptions to this, but for the majority of children, the ability to think through and carry out an action based on a particular motive does not manifest itself until the third grade. Before you look at your three or five year olds’ behavior and judge it as purposefully defiant or manipulative, consider other possible factors for their less than desirable behavior. Is there something physical driving their actions that you as the parent can remedy? Is there something emotional that you as the parent need to take pause to address? Perhaps a tired child just needs a cuddle and some quiet time. Perhaps your child senses some stress in their living environment and needs assurance that they are still loved. Again – mistrusting our child’s motives is NOT meeting their emotional warmth needs. Instead of loving the child unconditionally, we as parents are showing our children that they are not worthy of affection when they are acting in a way that fosters mistrust on our part.
4. We don’t allow children to be children. Children run. Children are a frenzy of activity. Children are loud. Children are messy. Children are honest and repeat what they hear at inopportune times. Children do not know how to “control” their emotions. Children get dirty. Children like to explore. Children like to do things at their own pace. Children make absolutely no sense sometimes. And yet, we expect children to “behave” and not be any of these things. Cultivating emotional warmth means embracing what it means to be a child and allowing children to be children. Children, no matter how mature, are not mini-adults nor should they be expected to act like adults. I mentioned earlier that part of the definition of emotional warmth is giving the child a sense of being specially valued. Show your children that you value their childhood by letting them be the little ones that they are, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing it might be to you, the parent.
5. We get it backwards. I LOVE this one. I think this is where most parents have a complete and utter failure in meeting their child’s needs for emotional warmth. We expect our children to conform to our lifestyle and our needs. When both parents or even just one parent works, we expect our children to allow us the opportunity to get our beauty rest. If our child wakes often, doesn’t sleep through the night right at 3 months, etc… we get irritated and jump right into sleep training so we can get a good night’s sleep. What about the child? There is most assuredly a reason why they are waking up or not sleeping well. It is our duty as parents to meet our child’s needs and not expect them to meet ours.
6. We blame and criticize when a child makes a mistake. I cannot comprehend why a parent would do this! Children make mistakes simply because they do not know any better or any other way. Our job as parents is to guild our children and help them learn how to navigate life through our example of appropriate behavior. It is unavoidable that children will make mistakes. We need to look at these mistakes as an opportunity to connect with our children and to peacefully and gently guide their behavior.
7. We forget how deeply blame and criticism can hurt a child. When things go wrong, it is so easy to just blame someone else as opposed to looking inward and figuring out what we could have done better. Blaming your child, especially your very young child, is ludicrous in my mind! Who would even think to blame a child for anything? This is probably the most dangerous behavior when it comes to meeting a child’s emotional needs. Placing blame is very damaging because the child will likely come to believe that he or she IS really at fault. This can lower self esteem, confidence, and so much more. The same goes for criticism. Why would you criticize your child for simply being who they are and being in their developmental stage? Why comment on how messy they are when they cannot help it? Instead of criticizing, try saying something to lighten YOUR mood and also make your child feel loved. If your child makes a huge mess try something along the lines of “mommy is soooo tired today and should have helped you carry your snack to the table. Since it fell on the floor, I could really use your help cleaning this up. I really enjoy it when we can clean things up together.” Then grab your child, give him or her a little snuggle and get to cleaning up the mess without further conversation regardless of whether your child helps. Instead of blaming your child for making an unavoidable mess (because YOU, the parent really should have helping), engage them in age appropriate restitution while taking blame yourself!
8. We forget how healing loving actions can be. In our busy day to day lives, we often forget to show love. It is easy to say nice things in passing but to actually stop, take 60 seconds and physically express your love, seems to be a much more arduous task. I do not see why it should be. As a parent, I want nothing more than to hug, hold, snuggle, kiss, cuddle, tickle, and squeeze my sweet Tiny. I especially want to do this after I have had a less than perfect parenting moment.
9. We forget that our behavior provides the most potent lessons to the child. Children are mimics and learn through imitation for their first 7 years of life. How parents and other caregivers live their lives in front of their children is of critical importance. Children do not understand the old adage of do what I say, not as I do. If you, their ultimate role model, acts in a negative manner then the child will react to this either by internalizing the emotions you displayed or acting in the same manner you did. Being a calm, peaceful, grounded parent is extremely important and will automatically provide your child with oodles of emotional warmth. Modeling this behavior with your spouse, partner or child’s other parent is also critical. When we have communication breakdowns and failures with other adults in the presence of our children, we are not only modeling poor communication skills to them but we are also showing them that it is acceptable and within appropriate behavior limits to treat other people with disrespect and disregard. Take your adult issues away from your child. Keep your adult emotions, anger, frustration, and irritation under wraps until you can appropriately address them away from your impressionable child. Remember, you have no one to blame when your child acts out. They are acting exactly how they have seen you act. So when you are feeling yourself react poorly, stop, take a breath and consider whether you would want your child acting in this manner towards another person.
10. We see only the outward behavior, not the love and good intentions inside the child. It is so easy to forget that children and just that – children. They are spontaneous, without fear, imaginative, exploratory, self centered, careless, fragile, curious and so much more. These traits are often viewed as negative because they interfere with day to day life and “hurrying up” to the next part of your regularly scheduled day. When children act like children they are not doing so in an effort to inconvenience you, the parent. Going back to an earlier point, they are just being children and acting their age! So assume that when a child does not act in a manner that pleases us, that they are doing so with all of the best intentions and that this is the best that they are capable of based on their their current ability. Children are inherently good and so filled with love. Remember that this is what is really driving them – not a desire to annoy the parent!
As a parent it is our JOB to laugh, hug, hold, and smile at our children in additional to telling them how loved they are. Children cannot create their own emotional warmth. It must be provided to them in abundance. If you think that you are already giving your children more than enough emotional warmth, give them even more. Add one or two more smiles to their day. Laugh 30 seconds longer. Give them an extra squeeze. Cover them in more kisses than you already do. Rub their little backs and feet to physically connect. Make a conscious effort to be more present in your daily interactions with them. But mostly importantly, give yourself permission to be a human being. When you fall back into less than desirable habits and fail to provide appropriate emotional warmth, just move on. Start over again and refill your child’s love cup!