Are You Meeting Your Child's or Teen's Most Crucial Need?

Love alone is not enough for raising an emotionally healthy child.

Posted Apr 16, 2014

As a psychologist for the past 23 years I've worked with well over two thousand children, teens, and their parents. Parents usually contact me to help their child with defiant behavior, anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, school struggles, substance abuse concerns, amongst other struggles. 

In all my years practicing, I've had very few children tell me that their parents do not love them. This is a very good thing, Most parents pride themselves, with good reason, that their children know that they feel deeply loved by them.

I value the concept of love and the treasure all that comes from giving and receiving love. I certainly love my own children very much. But when it comes to the complexities of parenting, love is not enough!

I believe that understanding our children is just as important, if not more important, than loving them! Sadly, while most  children come to my office, and readily share that their parents love them, most also express that their parents don't understand them, at least at the level that they are seeking to be understood. Reflecting on this, I certainly can think of times when I could've done a better job understanding each of my own three children.

Looking at the crucial value of understanding our children from another angle, no adults have ever come into my office and stated their own parents were too understanding. For sure, I don't hear any adults upset about their own parents having put too much time and energy in being empathetic about their concerns when they were younger.

I've been very fortunate in my life to have parents who have understood me quite well. The population of parents that seek counselling with me certainly seem motivated to learn more effective ways to understand their own children. But even if you've not had parents who were, or are, not very understanding, you certainly can give this crucial gift to your own children.

Many parents express to me that their own raw emotions (usually fears) and reactivity get in the way of understanding, really understanding, their kids. If you struggle with being able to understand your child, I suggest that you watch yourself and your child/teen interact from above. To do this you can imagine suspending yourself on the ceiling and watching the communication between you and your child. I have found, for many of the parents I work with, by having them figuratively looking down on the interaction with their children, they can rise above some of those thorny emotional struggles that sabotage understanding. This paves the way for parents to give their children the validation and empathy that they so strongly need.

 Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 23 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS Eyewitness News Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC, and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), and Why Can't You Read My Mind?