February is all about love, and many in the adult world are professing their love to that special someone. From poems to bouquets of beautiful flowers to romantic candlelight dinners, there is no shortage of outpouring of affection. But what about kids? How do they express their love?
Babies and toddlers: Learning to love
Infants change so quickly, and every few months marks a new milestone in their ability to show love, all of which are focused on the most important person in their young lives -- you!
From baby's first social grin around the age of two months to the beginning of separation anxiety around 8 months, your baby is learning all about his new world, including what it feels like to be loved, from his primary caregivers, which makes it all the more rewarding when you're the recipient of those first baby kisses. Those early smooches might not be perfect as he may forget to close his mouth -- but those early tries signify you're a special person to him.
Tracy Treacy, M.S., LPC is the director and a psychotherapist at the D&S Healing Center in Milwaukee. She stresses the importance of consistency when she points out that babies bond and attach with parents by learning how to depend on them. Their love is shown with eye contact, touch, smell and laughter.
As the child realizes the parent is a constant person in his life, the relationship becomes more two-way in nature as the toddler and parent have expectations of each other. The parent begins to learn the toddler’s temperament and needs and gets fulfillment from meeting those needs. The child gets and gives loving signals based on the parent’s mood and responses to his behavior.
Preschoolers: Learning to socialize
When a child's family has given her a solid foundation to build other relationships upon, she begins to feel safe showing love to people beyond the family unit. This is when the skill of dealing with others' feelings and emotions becomes developed, and the preschooler begins to share and feel as if she fits in socially. Preschoolers can then give and receive love if their feelings are valued and nurtured; then they can treat others this way as well.
Have you ever watched a preschooler play? Sharing and showing affection are not always obvious. However, Treacy states that parents can impact how preschoolers express caring behavior. To some extent that is achieved by encouraging relationships with other preschoolers who exhibit “healthy” behaviors. Additionally, parents can encourage play groups, talking to children that may appear lonely or excluded from the group, or playing with children on a playground.
This encouragement will help the preschooler develop empathy and begin to feel confident enough to choose friendships outside the family. Treacy says, “The parent needs to have multiple conversations about how they are feeling when with other children, safety issues, and trusting what they may feel in their tummies. These conversations will help the child begin to trust that they can choose people in their lives that are caring and how to deal with people who make them feel not so good and what these feelings may mean for them.”
School-age children: Learning about first crushes
The more children understand others and themselves, the more they will learn how to navigate love relationships.
It is often during these years that children will have first crushes. Treacy emphasizes that just as a crush shouldn’t be ridiculed, it also should not be encouraged. Instead that crush should be treated as a developmental stage. This is a stage when a child learns to exhibit yet another different kind of love. This is a time when the parent needs to encourage a safe place for the child to share what he is feeling for the other person and become a very good listener.
Treacy says, “It is awkward enough that the child has these feelings about someone that may have been irritating a year ago and now they are having fantasies about them. Good grief, parents! Be a safe and comforting space for the child. If you have developed the trust and love earlier on, this will be a no-brainer.”
Tweens and teens: Learning to date
The tweens and teens stage is a very awkward stage in a child’s life, and expressing love at this stage may become more direct. Marti Erickson, Ph.D., retired University of Minnesota professor and co-host of weekly parenting podcast "Mom Enough" says, “Depending on how much freedom the tweens have, they may arrange to meet and sit together at a school event, a park or a neighborhood coffee shop. Since many have smartphones, they may text or interact on social media or Facetime.”
Dr. Erickson emphasizes that parents have an important role in setting an example of positive affection with each other and respectful communication, even during times of conflict. They also need to monitor these early relationships carefully, trying to become acquainted with the kids their children are spending time with (including friendships and budding romantic relationships).
It’s important to connect with other parents, having open discussions about the common rules and values you are all trying to instill in the children as they move into their teens and adulthood. For example, when Dr. Erickson’s children were tweens and teens, her circle of parenting friends formed a network that agreed to alert each other if they saw anything of concern, including bad driving, underage drinking, inappropriate sexual behavior or other signs of unhealthy relationships. The parents explained to the children that they were united in looking out for them because they loved them and wanted them to be safe and healthy.
It also can be very helpful to monitor the movies and TV shows your children watch and to talk with them about what you see in the different types of relationships portrayed in the shows. Parents have an important role in helping children understand what a healthy relationship is, how to set appropriate boundaries and how to deal with difficult situations.
Tweens and teens need to have a clear set of rules and expectations. Welcome your child's friends and romantic interests into your home so you can get a sense of how they interact together and how respectful the friends or romantic interests are toward you. Dr. Erickson adds, “With kids at any age -- from the 3rd-grader with a first crush to the college student -- ask them what they like about the person, moving beyond 'he's cute' to understanding what his or her interests are, whether he has a good sense of humor, is a hard-working student, is compassionate.”
We expect that adults have the ability to express love. For kids it may be more difficult to show love due to undeveloped verbal skills, the insecurity of dealing with a crush for the first time or navigating one of life’s most awkward stages. However, children can definitely show love. Just be prepared that it may come in the form of a sloppy wet kiss, an invitation to a play date or even a text message.
Julie Davidson is an author, freelance writer and blogger. She recently released her first book, "From Conception to Confusion."