One of the most critical jobs of a parent is to help their child develop their sense of worth.
Feeling loved and valued comes from the positive emotional interactions between parent and child. It's a genuine smile that conveys love and acceptance; a warm hug that expresses caring and reassurance. It's a simple, "I am here for you, I have your back. You've got this." Together, these bring about an essential emotional bond or attachment.
While that parenting advice sounds good in theory, the reality is that while many parents are trying their best to be emotionally available and supportive, they may be hindered because they may not have been given the love, acceptance, support or nurturing they needed from their own parents.
Intergenerational patterns get passed down like a baton, and it can be hard to break the cycle. If you carry the wounds of not having had the love you needed as a child, and it was never modelled for you, it can be a challenge to parent differently than from what you experienced.
Sadly, men have it worse. The male ideal in North American society still teaches boys and men that showing emotion is a sign of weakness and vulnerability and thus not masculine. To be masculine is to be tough and strong, not emotional.
As a result, boys are less likely to have fathers who display their emotions, and are more likely to be encouraged to suppress and deny their emotions rather than honour them. While North American society is challenging these gender norms, there is a still a long way to go.
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But the good news is that anything is possible: humans are capable of changing and adapting — it is one of the characteristics that makes us more advanced than other mammals. So, where do we begin if we want to start being more emotionally available and expressive with our children?
Start by simply paying attention
That's right: start noticing. Emotions are biological and have evolutionary importance. We feel anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. What differs us from other mammals is how much we are willing to allow ourselves to attend to them.
Emotions express themselves through the body. Take a moment to scan every area of your body and notice if you are holding any tension or tightness. Are there any areas where you feel hot or cold? Any throbbing or pulsing sensations? How big is the area? Where does it start and finish? Does it have a shape? Could you draw it?
This is the beginning of paying attention to your emotions via your body rather than your mind. The more you sense, the more you'll begin to connect with your emotions and gradually come to "feel" them as emotions. This is a long journey, so be patient with yourself.
"Fake it 'til you make it"
Sometimes you have to do things in reverse order. You may not feel like being cuddly with your daughter or son, but if you invite them to read a book on your lap you may begin to generate positive emotions as touch and proximity can create a biological connection between people.
Try placing your hand on your child's shoulder or hold their hand when they talk to you. Notice how this conveys more closeness between the two of you.
Over time, these small — but important and loving — gestures add up, and can increase the bond you have with your child.
Take it one step at a time
Be compassionate with yourself and take baby steps. For many people, therapy is the best route as it can unpack childhood baggage and heal old wounds that allow for healing and positive growth.
Every day you have the chance to grow by deciding to do just one small thing to express to your child that you love them unconditionally.
Write a list of actions that feel doable but are also just outside your normal comfort zone. Now get going!
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