All kids want to not only be loved but FEEL loved
There is no kid on the face of this earth who doesn't deeply desire to be loved and accepted by their caregivers. We adults tend to underestimate this need. I was hit with a stark reminder of this fact recently.
I was feeling mad the other day and my daughter seemed to mirror my emotion. She sulked on the couch and then looked up at me and said "I wish you loved me. You are acting like you don't love me anymore."
I had no idea that that was the way I seemed to her. It broke my heart. Although I was still feeling angry, I sat down with her and told her that even when I feel angry, I love her more than life itself. That nothing could ever make me stop loving her.
When unable to articulate it, they'll act it out
We, adults, tend to take for granted that we love our children and we can forget to make daily efforts to show them our unconditional love. My daughter is very articulate and was able to tell me directly when she wasn't feeling loved. Many children are unable to articulate this need and instead, act out trying to get confirmation of being loved. This acting out can cause caregivers to actually act less loving towards them which creates a cycle of more acting out. They will keep acting out until they finally get the confirmation of the unconditional love they are searching for.
Parents have emotions
It is natural for us to feel angry, sad, etc. We are human and we have emotions. Our children are very sensitive to our changes in mood and the way we treat them. They can take our moods personally and believe that when we are upset, that means we don't love them anymore. It is during our most difficult moments that we must find a way to assure our children that we still love them. Our love is not conditional, it will not go away simply because we are angry or sad.
A roadblock that I've run into is my own programming. Ingrained in my brain is the belief that if I am loving and affectionate with my child after she has done something undesirable (aka hit her sister), I am rewarding that behavior. The reality is that most of the time, she hits her sister out of frustration or lack of impulse control, not because she actually wants to harm her. She loves her sister and when she is in control of herself, she does not harm her. So withdrawing affection from her when she is feeling out of control and most likely, scared of her own violent impulses, shows her that I don't love her unconditionally. That is not the message that I want her to receive.
We all need to deprogram ourselves from unhelpful (and harmful) cultural beliefs and programming. Like I said in the previous paragraph, I am deprogramming from the belief that affection is a reward. I am also deprogramming from the belief that I need to teach my daughter a "lesson" every time she does something undesirable (e.g. when she breaks something, etc). I have a knee-jerk reaction to let her know how the thing she broke will negatively impact her because now she can't use it, blah blah blah. As if my explanation will shock her into feeling sorry and not breaking anything in the future. What she hears is that I am disappointed in her, mad about what she did, and possibly that I don't love her when she breaks stuff. I have so much to deprogram and unlearn.
Make it a daily practice
Join me in making it a daily practice to remind our kids that we love them no matter what. Especially when they are having a difficult time. Or when we are having a difficult time. Those are the moments when it matters most. That's when we need to get down on our child's level, look them in the eyes and profess our undying love for them. Over and over again. Every day.