Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Talking With Toddlers: Love, Security and Relationships

I believe in the power of words. I believe that the moments when we are loosing it, we can use words that function better than we do. After years of working with toddlers, we've crafted phrases that help us and the children function better.

To know when to use these phrases, it helps to keep in mind the needs of these tiny, but mighty people. The "Talking With Toddlers" series of posts has focused on the needs for movement and sensory experiences, developing sense of identity, and cognition and the language that can support those developing needs. Of course, these needs don't operate in isolation, but in balance. Above all, one need is most important.   

Movement and Senses * Individuality and Sense of Self * Relationships * Language * Cognition * Love and Security


Adele Diamond, a founder of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience, explained that Love and Security was absolutely most critical for a child's successful and healthy development. Indeed, nothing else can develop when this fundamental need is not met.

Let's celebrate that for a moment. Every parent I have met has one thing in common. They love their children and they are trying to do the best they can at this great work, parenting. Do they make mistakes? Have I made mistakes? Absolutely! Has every action I conveyed the love and unconditional positive regard I have for my daughter? For certain, no. To grow in my ability to share this acceptance and love, I know I must focus on myself and know:   

I fully accept and love my self, right now in this moment. 
I have spoken harsh words and I have spoken loving words, but I am not my words.
I have thought terrible thoughts and I have thought compassionate thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
I have had terrible, weak, angry and sad feelings. I have had joyful, happy and loving feelings, but I am not my feelings.
I have made mistakes and done bad things. I have done wonderful, brave and compassionate things, but I am not my actions.
I have a body, but I am not my body.

I am individual, but I am also connected to my family, my friends, and my community and  my actions have an impact on those around me. I hope that my impact is a positive one. 

I believe that loving others begins with loving myself. If you believe the same then these ramblings might resonate with you, too.

If we begin at this place of unconditional positive regard, love and acceptance what does that mean? Does it mean that everything our child does is ok? Does that mean that we are there to protect our child from experiencing anything difficult, struggling or failing because of this love? Absolutely not. As Maria Montessori explained, "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader."

What is it that we ultimately want for our child? We want her to grow to love who she is at her core. We want her to have meaningful relationships with other people without losing her sense of self. We want her to connect with her community and realize that her contributions are meaningful.

Dan Siegel describes this healthy emotional function as an integrated state. An individual that exists in this state (I hope I've had a few moments of this level of functioning) allows all of the different parts of self to work together like a choir singing in harmony. At the level of the individual, relationship, community and even country doesn't exist in this healthy state, there is either a state of rigidity or a state of chaos, Dr. Siegel explains.

Creating an environment of love and security requires us to do only three things- accept, connect with your child, and honor separateness.

Accepting means that our words and actions reflect that we honor the worth, goodness and value our child no matter what his emotions, or actions. That does not mean that an action is appropriate or accepted, but that the child is always accepted. We can explain to a child, "That is not ok," which is a very different statement than, "You are not ok." Our role as a parent or leader of a child is to model appropriate actions and set clear limits about the behavior you expect. The child is given as much freedom as he can handle at a given time and he is allowed to experience the natural or logical consequences of his actions.

Connecting with your child means spending time together. It doesn't need to be more complicated than spending time together face-to-face. A time for listening and responding, doing something or doing nothing.

Allan Schore, an expert on attachment and emotional health, explains that the emotional circuitry in the brain is actually built during these moments of emotional connection between the parent and the infant. Parents actually control the level of stimulation in the first few months of life by swaddling and rocking when the baby cries or cooing and making silly faces while the baby gazes up at them. This connection is how the baby learns self-control and emotional regulation. The mother and infant, through voice, gesture and gaze, create a palpable and positive energy that peaks before she quiets and responds when the baby starts to look away, needing more calm. During these moments of synchronicity, Dr. Schore explains, the brain creates important connections that allow a child to develop emotional control, empathy, effective communication, and even an ability to regulate stress.

We can't always have these perfectly in-sync moments. The good news is we don't have to be perfectly responsive and in tune all of the time. Just showing up is enough, and these moments will happen.

Honoring separateness means respecting your child's body, your child's emotions, your child's thoughts and your child's work. As a parent, you are the person above all others that your child needs to honor his separateness at each stage of independence. As a parent, you are the person above all others, that will find this separateness most difficult.

A child's life begins completely attached to his mother. We honor and celebrate the separation of birth, knowing the infant can no longer thrive in the womb that was once a perfect environment for him. At each stage of independence, when the child comes off the breast, begins to crawl away and then walk away, the parent must embrace each separation with openness, acceptance and positivity.

When we see our children at the end of a school day acceptance, connection and honor means that we do not ask, "What did you do?" or "Were you good today?" It means that we say, "I'm so happy to see you." It means that we refrain from fixing hair and clothing, as if our child was a doll. When our help is necessary, we ask first. When the child needs help with his body, we tell him, "I'm going to help you with your body.

Honoring separateness means respecting concentration, even when it is the thousandth time she's repeated a task. When your child is feeling proud of herself you share in her joy, without eclipsing her sense of accomplishment with praise or replacing her own evaluation with yours. When your child is struggling on a difficult task, you do not step in to show how easily it can be done, you acknowledge the difficulty of the task. You offer your child only the help that is necessary, even though the amount of help needed may change day to day and even moment to moment.

We can use words that express love and acceptance, while still setting clear limits and communicating our expectations. We won't get it right all of the time, but having a list of phrases can help us use constructive words, even when we aren't on our "A" game.


There is certainly no shortage of parenting advice. No matter what advice makes sense to you and of all the things you can do for your child, love is the most important. When, at the end of the day, you may feel that dinner was lacking, the tv was on, bedtime was late and the house was a mess, be kind to yourself. You've already given your child the most important thing he will ever need- love. Just don't forget to give it to yourself, too.