A phrase that has been popping up in my house recently from my 3.5 year old is “I don’t love you anymore Mommy!” commonly paired with “you are not my friend anymore”. I must admit I was a little taken aback when I heard this the first time and noticed an array of feelings surfacing as I soaked it in. The range of automatic responses I had to pat down were varied, with my own 3 year old self wanting to cry out in protest that I didn’t love her anymore either and my traditional self wanting to reprimand her for being rude and teach her that we don’t say things that hurt other peoples feelings. Knowing that children speak in code, however, helped me to pause before responding so I could reflect on what she was trying to say and have a mindful reaction that we would both feel good about.
The point is “I don’t love you anymore” is an extremely powerful phrase that automatically speaks to our deepest fears about rejection and loss. As adults we carry a lot of our own baggage from failed relationships and no doubt have negative associations to the phrase. When children say it the meaning is less complicated, however, and remembering that is important so that we don’t project our own feelings of loss onto our little ones. In actuality I would even say that when a child proclaims to a parent “I don’t love you anymore” it is a sign of success that the child sees the parent as a safe person who can handle all of their messy feelings and won’t punish them for it. In that moment the child is baring their soul, looking to see how their parent will respond. The reaction they receive helps the child assess whether or not authentic communication is acceptable and informs them of how to function in relationship to others.
For my daughter and I and for many parents treading the path of mindful parenting is a work in progress, by no means perfected, nor will it ever be. The point is not to be perfect in your responses but to be real and have good intentions, repairing the ruptures as you go, as quickly as possible. If parents focus on the words “I don’t love you” too much it can set up a power struggle between parent and child that can be hard to break. Example:
Parent: “Please stop jumping on the chair, I’m worried you will fall off.”
Child: “I don’t love you anymore Mommy!”
Parent: “That’s not a nice thing to say to me, we don’t say that in our family.”
Child: “Its true I DONT love you.”
Parent: “If you keep saying that I am going to put you in a time out/get very upset.”
Child: Either escalates into a tantrum and goes in a time out or shuts down and swallows the bad feelings. Parent and child are now disconnected with unresolved feelings. Unless this is repaired it can become a family theme.
The more we look beneath the surface of the communication, the more chance we have of staying connected and maintaining a secure attachment. Here is how the conversation might go:
Parent: “I’m going to ask you again to stop drawing on the table. You can draw on the paper but not the table.”
Child: “I don’t LOVE you anymore, you are not my friend mommy.”
Parent: Deep breath to stay in adult brain, “oh I see, I said no to you drawing on the table and now you feel like you don’t love me. You didn’t like hearing no”
Child: “You are not my friend any more, I don’t want to play with you.”
Parent: “I hear you. You feel pretty upset right now because you had a plan and I ruined it.”
Child: “Yes” crying.
Parent: “That must be hard. If you would like a hug I am here.”
Child: After brooding for several minutes child smiles and says, “Mommy lets draw flowers on my paper!” A few minutes later, ”Mommy I love you SO much!”
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit wellbabycenter.org/blog.
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.