How to Give Unconditional Love When You Didn’t Get It Yourself

“The key is unconditional kindness to all life, including one’s own, which we refer to as compassion.” – David R. Hawkins

All parents know that children need unconditional love to thrive. But how can we give our children something many of us haven’t really experienced?

The answer is that each of us CAN experience unconditional love — by giving it to ourselves.  We do this by actively, thoughtfully, accepting ourselves — imperfections and all.  When we miss the mark of our own standards — as we all do, all the time — we give ourselves a compassionate hug, and resolve to give ourselves better support so we can keep moving in the right direction.

Compassion — whether it comes from inside or outside — gradually moves  humans from a state of being “self-centered” to a state of being “centered in self.” Researchers say this deep self-love is the opposite of selfishness.

We become so secure in our ok-ness that we’re more emotionally generous. Anger and defensiveness begin to melt away. That lens of love softens our judgment of ourselves, which in turn makes us more loving. We’re happier people — and more peaceful parents.

Here’s how:

1. Commit to radical self-compassion.  Think of this as parenting yourself in a loving way through all the trials and tribulations of life. As Anne Lamott says, “Take yourself through the day as you would your most beloved mental-patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.”

Why radical self-compassion? That’s the unconditional in “unconditional” love, which means loving yourself deeply regardless of your flaws and mistakes. It’s easy to approve of perfection, but humans are never perfect, so you’re bound to make mistakes. Love yourself anyway! That’s the only way you’ll be able to love your child unconditionally. Just snap at your kid? Take a deep breath and soothe yourself; then you’ll be better able to repair things with your child.

2. Make repair and connection a way of life. We need seven positive interactions to every negative interaction to keep a relationship in good shape. When your child hurts her sister’s feelings, you help her find a way to make up, to repair the rift she’s created in the relationship.  So when you create a rift with your child, you do a variation of this:  Offer your child a heartfelt apology, find a way to reconnect and repair, and create seven positive interactions. This not only repairs your relationship with your child; it repairs your own self-love. By creating positive interactions with your child now, you’re healing whatever you wish you hadn’t done or said in the past – so you automatically stop beating yourself up about your past mistakes.

3. Experiment with a mantra to retrain your mind. When you change your thoughts, your feelings become more forgiving, and more loving. Use your mantra as often as possible, so it’s more likely to pop into your mind when you’re under stress. Some of my favorites:

I am more than enough.

She’s acting like a kid because she is a kid.

This is not an emergency.  No one’s dying. This will be ok.

I’m the role model for my kids.

Whatever happens, I can handle it.

My kids will be ok. They need me, not a perfect mother.

He’s acting like this because he needs my love and guidance.

If you remember this in a year, you’ll be laughing about it.

Kids need love. Especially when they least deserve it.

I breathe in love. I breathe out love.

4. Meditate. The Buddha said that one of the main benefits of meditation is that it creates unconditional friendliness toward the self.  You could also think of this as unconditional love for yourself. Research shows that even ten minutes of meditation every day makes a huge difference in your ability to stay calm. That’s because it actually changes your brain — for the better, and permanently! Why not try it? (I know, because you’re a parent and you don’t have ten minutes. Maybe try letting the kids listen to an audio book (which is good for them!) while you listen to a meditation audio?

5. When you lose it, find a way to use it. Instead of berating yourself when you make a mistake, resolve to learn from it.  Ok, so you lost it and screamed at your child.  Stop beating yourself up. Calm yourself down. Apologize (and resist the urge to make it your child’s fault.)  Now, how can you make this a less-frequent occurrence?  Start bedtime earlier?  Give yourself five minutes with a cup of herb tea before you start the bedtime routine?  Post a schedule to make evenings run more smoothly?  Have a rambunctious play session every day before dinner, so the rest of the evening feels calmer and more connected? Commit to spending “special time” with each child every day, so they aren’t running on empty?  Commit to exercising or meditating, even for twenty minutes a day? Just do it.

Hard? Yes.  You’re creating love out of nothing.  Transforming dross into gold.  Learning to love yourself is the hardest work there is.

But you’re worth it.

And so is your child.