“I love you”. Can any words possibly sound sweeter or offer greater comfort? Is any statement more natural–or necessary–between a parent and child? In many families, these words come easily. But if you grew up never hearing them, saying “I love you” may feel somewhat unnatural to you. Or if members of your family used loving statements to control or manipulate, you may be very uncomfortable using them with your own children.

Many families either don’t communicate loving feelings very often or they communicate them in destructive ways. A counselor friend once told me she was appalled to discover that some of her clients had never heard the words, “I love you” from their parents: “I couldn’t imagine parents who couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to their children, probably because I grew up hearing it all the time. But in the middle of my shock and self-righteousness, I realized that in my family, that statement was always loaded with expectations for me to do something. Most of the time when my parents said ‘I love you’ they would stand there and wait for us to say ‘I love you, too’. So that statement always came off as a solicitation, rather than an expression of how they really felt about us.”

If either of these extremes describe your upbringing, chances are, you aren’t using loving statements as often–or as “cleanly”–as you might. A few simple guidelines can help.

Let’s hear it! We all need to hear loving statements from people we care about. It may be easy to assume that your kids know you love them. After all, you do love them and you probably do a lot of loving things for them. That’s important.

But feeling love for someone is not the same as expressing it. Nor is doing loving things. Loving feelings and loving behaviors are not loving words–and those are important, too.

If you find it hard to get the words out of your mouth, either from lack of familiarity or fear of rejection, start slowly. A parent in one of my workshops confessed to practicing on the dog for a few days before she could get up the nerve to try it out on her kids! Another started by writing love notes to her children, sneaking them into their lunch bags or under their pillows. Both reported such a strong, positive response from their children, that saying “I love you” came much more easily after that.

Keep it simple! “I love you” is a complete sentence. We don’t need to tie our feelings for a person to the person’s behavior. In fact, whenever we connect it to something the other person has done, “I love you” becomes a statement of conditional caring.

“I love you when you make your bed”, or “I love you when you make the honor roll”, suggest that you love your child because of his behavior or accomplishment. It also suggests that the love wouldn’t be there–or be quite the same–if the child hadn’t made the bed or the grades. (Don’t you love your kid in either case?) You can still be excited and happy about the behavior, but avoid communicating that your loving feelings for your child exist because he’s doing what pleases you.

“I love you”. Period.

No expectations. Say “I love you” because you want to say “I love you.” Say it because you feel love toward the person you’re talking to. Say it because it feels good to say it.

“I love you” is a powerful statement and lots of times it will evoke a loving response from the recipient. But attaching an expectation for a response to the statement is a set-up–both for you and the other person. If the expectation is there, your child will know it. If he does respond, it will probably be to avoid guilt or conflict rather than genuine, spontaneous caring. Is that what you really want?

If your children haven’t learned how to say “I love you” yet, it’s OK to tell them that you need to hear those three little words sometimes, too. Then give them some space to risk, practice and learn. By far their best lessons will come from your own unconditional modeling.

Turn the love inward. Next to unconditional love, the best gift you can give another person is the love you give yourself! In fact the ability to love, appreciate and care for yourself is essential to healthy, loving relationships with others.

So, look in the mirror. Look into your eyes. Say “I love you.” No “buts.” No qualifiers. Say it out loud. Say it often. Mean it.

Jane Bluestein, Ph.D.

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