It’s easy to tell your kids you love them during happy times. But it’s just as important to do so when it’s hard as well. Here’s why:
The downturn of the sides of their mouths. The narrowing of tearful eyes. The slight rise in the shoulders. These were the slight cues I’d see when my kids realized they were in trouble. And it all signaled one thing: They felt defensive.
And who wouldn’t? They don’t like getting in trouble or knowing they did something wrong. And they don’t want to disappoint their parents. So, they pout, cry, or even get angry.
But defensiveness doesn’t help anyone. They’re so wound up that they still don’t follow directions or even listen to what I’m saying. Their mood can even extend for several minutes of pouting, almost stuck in a rut.
For instance, I told my then-three-year-old to put his dinosaurs on the floor while we ate breakfast. When I later found the dinosaurs still on the table, I took the toys and put them on the floor myself. Assuming he was in trouble, he made pouting sounds and refused to finish his breakfast.
But then I asked myself why he was behaving this way. The reason went beyond the actual misbehavior—the dinosaurs were the least of the problems. I learned it wasn’t even getting in trouble, though that’s not a fun experience either.
I finally realized he felt vulnerable. He didn’t want to feel abandoned, shamed, or that he didn’t do anything so terrible it would change how his parents thought of him.
Tell your kids you love them, even when it’s hard to
That’s right. Tell your kids you love them, even when it’s not always a pleasant situation. Because isn’t it so easy to smother them with love and kisses when they behave? But they also need to know we still love them, no matter how they behave.
So, I tried this to see if it would change the way they responded to critiques and reprimands. Before I even disciplined, I told my kids “I love you.”
This can be hard. They just did something to annoy, disappoint, or anger us. We’re not exactly in the mood to say loving words or spend quality time with them.
But it’s at this moment when they need to feel reassured, especially when they feel defensive. They need to know that we don’t love their behavior, but we always love them.
Here are a few small ways to tell your kids you love them, even when they misbehave:
1. Show empathy
Even if our kids do something they’re not supposed to, we can still show empathy for how they must be feeling. Begin by acknowledging their intentions (“You really like those dinosaurs”). This almost always crumbles the wall they may have erected when they thought they were in trouble.
Then, describe what they must be feeling. You’re letting them know you “get” where they’re coming from and that you’re on the same side. You’re not out to start a fight, but are connecting with them even before you teach a lesson.
Let her know you understand how she feels—this validates all her emotions, even the difficult ones.
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2. Use body language
Children are especially attuned to body language, more so than words or instructions. Sometimes we don’t even need to say anything at all. A hug, a touch on the arm, or a rub on the back can be enough to signal that it’s all right and we love them.
They might feel defensive or are being hard on themselves for what they did. These small things and simple gestures can be an expression of love.
3. Soften your face
The best way to get through to our kids is through warmth, not anger or frustration. Yes, there might be moments when we can’t help but yell or get upset. Our faces might even show horror at what they’ve done.
But if your child has put up walls or is crestfallen at what she has done, it won’t work to be just as angry or frustrated yourself. Instead, soften your face and let her know that you’re still on her side, even if you don’t like her behavior. This can be all that’s needed to stop her from crying, pouting, or whining.
4. Say “I love you” outright
And of course, we can tell our kids we love them by saying so outright. Sometimes we need to say it even during hard times. They hear it often enough when they’re happy and behaving, but they also need to know that nothing they do—no matter how bad—can make us stop loving them.
In fact, don’t send your child away alone when she’s frustrated. She needs you, now more than the times she’s cheerful and happy. Even saying something like, “I’m here when you’re ready to have me nearby” can help. Give her a hug—you don’t even need to say a word.
At one point, my then-three-year-old had grabbed a toy from his brother’s hands. His behavior wasn’t ideal—we teach them to take turns instead of grabbing. But I held his hands in mine, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I love you. Okay? Mama loves you no matter what.”
This crumbled his walls almost instantly, and I drew him closer into my arms.
Once he was less angry and defensive, only then did we talk about his behavior. I let him know he’s not supposed to grab toys. That it hurts people’s feelings, that it can be dangerous, and that he wouldn’t like that to happen to him.
None of that would’ve registered if I had gone straight to discipline mode. And sometimes all it takes to calm kids down is a simple “I love you.”
What if my child thinks his behavior is normal? you might think. We often hear we shouldn’t pay attention or give affection to negative behavior.
But that’s not what’s happening here. Let’s say your child is so upset because he spilled a box of cereal on the floor. Not a pretty picture, and a huge mess to clean up, for sure.
But right now, your priority is your child. He’s so hard on himself and thinks he’s in such big trouble, so much that he’s inconsolable.
Telling or showing him “I love you” doesn’t condone that behavior. He’s not going to think, Mommy just told me she loves me. This feels nice. I’m going to dump the cereal tomorrow so she can hug me again.
Condoning the behavior means allowing him to toss cereal boxes again and again. Or not giving him the responsibility of cleaning up the mess. Or even ignoring any conversation and failing to follow through with consequences.
We should never withhold our love as a form of punishment. Instead, we can use it to remind our kids that yes, we love them, even with cereal on the floor and dinosaurs on the table.
Get more tips:
- When Your Child Ruins Everyone’s Day
- How to Stop Your Child from Whining All the Time
- Why Teaching Kids About Emotions Reduces Misbehavior
- How to Set Boundaries with Kids
- Model the Behavior You Want to See in Your Child
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