Is Love All Your Child Needs To Be Happy?

by David A. Young, PhD, MPH

Girl“Love is all you need” may be a popular sentiment, but as a parent of a young child, it’s challenging to put those words into practice. We know that unconditional love is critically important to ensure healthy development and parents can express it differently from infancy to middle childhood. Let’s explore what it looks like at each stage.

Stage 1: Infancy to Early Childhood
In early infancy years, it’s about trust and safety. Consistency and stability are requirements for learning that basic survival needs will be fulfilled. Alleviating hunger, physical safety and comfort, and forming an emotional connection with a dependable caregiver is akin to survival.

If your infant learns to trust he is safe and well cared for, he will be better equipped both emotionally and in terms of brain development to learn the next set of lessons to enhance future happiness. We know from studies of children experiencing trauma due to significant violence, abuse and/or neglect, that they will have poorer emotional and physical health later in life. This doesn’t doom them to a tragic life, but they will meet additional challenges to learn the skills necessary to become happy adults.

Parenting strategy for Stage 1: In this first stage of your child’s development, make sure their basic needs are consistently fulfilled. This will establish trust between you and your child, and will teach them that they can depend on you to meet their needs.

Stage 2: Early Childhood to Middle Childhood
As your child develops language, the ability to communicate through speech, reading and writing greatly facilitates his understanding of how things work. Love, at this stage, can be demonstrated through acknowledgement and letting the child know they are heard while also helping him or her learn to delay gratification. While his bodily needs will have him demanding, “milk!” he will learn the important skill of delaying gratification when his mother responds, “Mommy’s driving now; you’ll get milk as soon as we stop the car.” Your child doesn’t need to comprehend all the words to know he has been acknowledged, and because mom is dependable, he trusts a meal will soon be forthcoming.

As your young child continues to grow, talking, reading and singing to her will develop not only her readiness for formal education, it will also impart a sense of mastery over the world that awaits. Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, are building blocks for emotional intelligence, including empathy, balanced relationships, self-discipline and learned optimism.

There is no such thing as “spoiling” your child with too much affection and appreciation just for being who they are. They’re already ultra-sensitive to your criticism or disapproval, and life (especially siblings if they have them) will provide plenty of opportunities to learn how to cope with frustration and disappointment. It is important to distinguish between indulging every material desire versus lavishing them with reassuring hugs, kisses and “I love you’s!”

Parenting Strategy for Stage 2: In the second stage of development, acknowledge your child’s needs and wants, and teach gentle lessons about delayed gratification. Continue to give your child lots of affection, and show them you love them just as they are.

Kids who have a positive outlook on life and believe they are valued unconditionally, not because of what they may have accomplished, are destined to greater joy and enthusiasm for life. Teaching these lessons early on will give your child a head start on growing into a happy, healthy adult.

EMMDavidDavid has served in leadership roles for over 30 years in the behavioral healthcare industry. He has been an executive manager for mental health and family services organizations, a system of care consultant and direct services clinician. His passions include technology solutions to empower consumers, reduce health disparities, improve access to trauma-informed and culturally competent care, and eliminate mental health stigma.

He earned his PhD in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles and an MPH emphasizing healthcare administration from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

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