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What Does it Mean to Truly See Your Child?

You need to see your child for who they are, not who you want them to be.

Key points

  • If your child feels noticed and appreciated, this will build her self-confidence.
  • Being able to separate out what you want for your child versus what she wants for herself will help her.
  • Try putting your phone away for some time each day while you are with your child.

Recently I read an article about Adam Phillips, the wonderful British child psychoanalyst. In it he was quoted as saying, “There’s nothing to you until someone sees something in you.”

At first I wondered, is this really true? Don’t we know ourselves and know what we are capable of even without someone else noticing?

And then I remembered my training. In studying child development, I learned that it was eye contact with the parent that helps the infant to settle down when agitated or frightened, and it is through eye contact with the parent that infants learn social regulation. In fact, the greater the amount of parent-infant eye contact, the better the social regulation of the infant.

So, quite literally, from the very beginning babies need to be looked at — and seen — by their parents.

I also remembered that later in development, at ages two, three, and four, the greater the ability of the parent to “see” (that is, to know and to admire their child), the more likely it is that the child will feel worthwhile. The child of this age who feels noticed and valued by the parent will incorporate these feelings into their own sense of themselves as admirable and valuable. This is the basis for self-confidence.

All two and three-year-olds will say, “Look at me!” What they need is for the parent to see what they are doing – and also who they are. Children of all ages want to know that they are noticed, that they are valued, and that their particular abilities are appreciated.

Of course, this does not mean you need to say "Good job, Buddy" every few minutes. This has become an extremely popular habit amongst parents. But children are smart. They know when they have really done something worth praise and when they have not. If you keep saying "good job," it becomes meaningless.

Save "Good job!" for when your child has really accomplished something big and you want them to know you've noticed.

But back to what it means to really "see" your child.

I remember a family I saw in my practice many years ago. The father was a self-made man. His parents were immigrants and he was the first boy in his extended family to go to college and the only one to ever go on to an advanced degree. When he had his own four children, he wanted the same success for them that he had had. He valued education and he wanted his children to do well academically. Of his four children, it was clear that his two favorites were the two who were most academically inclined. One of the others showed signs early on of being artistic. She loved dance and painting from her earliest years. While her father was loving and well-meaning, he did not understand her.

He projected onto all of his children his own wishes and values. What had made him successful is what he wanted for them. As a result, his artistic daughter did not feel understood or "seen.” She did not feel valued by her father — and while talented, she eventually lost faith in her own artistic ability. She became an angry and unhappy teenager. She was furious with her father, although she did not exactly know why, and she had very little confidence in herself.

This father wanted his daughter to be like himself. He was not able to love and appreciate her as a different sort of person. Of course, his desires for his children came from a loving place; he wanted his children to be successful in life. But, unbeknownst to him, in not being able to value his daughter’s unique talents, he contributed to her lack of confidence in herself.

So one important element in “seeing” our children is being able to see them for who they are, not for who we want them to be. We need to value their unique character traits and abilities and reflect our appreciation back to them.

But how do we do this?

It occurs to me that there is no one simple answer to this question — but there are some starting points.

First of all, to be truly “seen,” children need to feel that they are understood. Every child needs to feel that their parents know what they like and what they don’t like, what is easy for them and what is hard, when they are making an effort and really trying and when they are not. Children need to know that their parents notice what they are doing and listen to what they have to say...not every minute of the day, but at least sometimes. And every child needs their parents to be able to be with them for prolonged periods of time, to accept their interests, and to be ok with their way of being. This is related to something talked about all the time these days — being “present”.

Really being present with a young infant, a toddler, or a young child means just being there with them. It means being able to restrain yourself from looking at your phone or watching the TV for a portion of every day. It means holding back your own projections and agendas and just being. It means concentrating on your child in the here and now.

Is your baby lifting up his head during tummy time? Can you take joy in this moment with him in his effort? Is your two-year-old collecting rocks? Can you be with her and collect some too, rather than hurrying her along or telling her to drop them because they’re dirty? Is your four-year-old drawing a three-armed man? And are you able to ask what he does with his arms rather than saying “But people have only two arms?”

To allow our children to “see” something in themselves, to feel confident at least some of the time, and to move forward in development, we must first be able to “see” them clearly ourselves and be able to love and admire what we see — at least some of the time.

Secondly, we need to be able to be present with them as they are and to put into affectionate gestures and words how much we admire them.

This is the beginning of what we need to do to truly see our children and to allow them to become people who see something valuable in themselves.

And while we’re at it, we all need to expend some effort on “seeing” our partners and our friends as well. We need to acknowledge more often than we do right now that we appreciate their unique selves and that we value their efforts. Just saying, “You are such a good cook and you made a great dinner tonight even though you were exhausted” or “Thanks for making the effort to call/text/email” will go a long way.

After all, we ALL need to know that we have been seen.

More from Corinne Masur Psy.D.
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