How to be an emotionally attentive parent

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The way a child is treated emotionally by his parents determines how he’ll treat himself as an adult. For example, a child who does not receive praise and attention for his small accomplishments, and the pride he feels, may grow up with low self-regard and little confidence in his own abilities. If you ignore your child’s emotions, your child will feel ignored on some level, no matter how much attention you pay to him in other ways.


Emotions are part of your child’s biology, and necessary for forging the strong parent-child bond of love and connection. If you help a child develop his emotional intelligence, it’s been shown to be more valuable to his success in life than general intelligence. It’s your job to teach your child how to name, use, and manage emotion, as well as how to deal with it in others.

Being an emotionally attentive parent is challenging, for three reasons. The first is because emotion hides behind behaviour. It’s easier to get angry with a child who is sulking and being stubborn, for example, than to look for the underlying emotion that’s causing the behaviour, such as fear. Second, if a parent is not emotionally aware herself, it’s difficult for her to perceive what her child is feeling. Finally, speaking the language of emotion doesn’t come naturally to children. Emotion can be powerful, complex, and confusing. Both parents and children often find it easier to simply ignore it.

A parent doesn’t have to be perfect to make the child feel emotionally cared for. If she or he works a little bit at a time to be more emotionally attentive, it can make an enormous difference in the adult child’s happiness. Here are seven ways to do it.

Pay attention to who your child really is. Your job is to see your child’s true nature--and reflect it back to her. What does your child like, dislike, get angry about, feel afraid of, or struggle with? Feed these observations back to your child in a nonjudgmental way so that your child can see herself through your eyes, and so that she can see how well you know her. For example, “I see your math homework seems really frustrating,” or “You sure do love that stuffed animal, don’t you?”

Feel an emotional connection to your child. Strive to feel what your child is feeling, whether you agree with it or not. When you show that you understand your child’s emotion, he will feel an instant bond with you. Put the feelings into words for him and teach him how to use his own words to express it. For instance, if he spends a lot of time alone, you might say, “You seem sad to be all alone on a beautiful day. Is it lonely not to have a friend here with you?”

Respond competently to your child’s emotional need. Don’t judge your child’s feeling as right or wrong. Look beyond the feeling, to the source that’s triggering it. Help your child name and manage her emotion. Give her simple, age-appropriate rules to live by. For example, if your child grabs her brother’s toys in order to anger him, you might talk about how frustrating it is to have a younger brother and have to share everything. Talk to her about how important it is to get along in a family, how we don’t want to hurt each other, and ask her what she might do instead of taking his toys from him. Then hold her accountable for her behaviour if she repeats it.

Teach self-forgiveness by modeling compassion. When your child makes a poor choice or mistake, help him understand what part of the mistake is his, what part is someone else’s, and what part is the circumstance. That helps him figure out how to correct his mistake without feeling blame from you or automatically blaming himself.

Show your child that you like as well as love her. It’s vital that your child not only knows but feels that you like and love her. Warm, caring hugs, laughter, and truly enjoying your child’s personality all go a long way toward conveying that feeling to your child. Knowing that she’s loved is not the same as feeling loved.

Don’t miss small opportunities to give attention. Childhood is composed of many small emotional moments, and the more of these that you share, the better off your child will be when he or she grows us. Spontaneously give your child a hug when you notice he looks sad. Ask her if she’s okay if you think she might be upset. Spend extra time with your child when you feel he needs it. If your child is going through a transition or difficult phase, e.g., starting school or moving, talk about it with her and do something special with her to show her you know what she’s going through.

Help children care for themselves. Adults who experienced emotional neglect as children often report that they never learned how to care for themselves--to get adequate sleep, eat regularly and healthfully, and exercise. As a parent, you can help your child learn self-discipline by teaching him to care for himself. Show him how healthy food makes him feel good, and junk food makes him feel lethargic and bad. Help him find physical activities that keep his body fit and his mood buoyant. And enforce a regular sleep schedule that creates energy and good coping skills the next day.

Dr. Jonice Webb is a pioneer in the field of Childhood Emotional Neglect and its negative impact on adult behaviour. Her new book is Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (Morgan James, 2012). www.drjonicewebb.com/.


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