Kids need unconditional love — not boundary-less love
Wt’s the first month of the COVID-19 lockdown and 16-year-old Avi wants his parents to buy him a Nintendo Switch because he’s bored.
“We’ll get it for you,” says his mother, “but you must sign a contract committing to certain conditions. Like, you can’t be on it for more than two hours a day, and the Internet part has to be disabled.”
The backtalk commences.
“Only two hours a day?” Avi splutters. “During lockdown — that’s nothing! What will I do the rest of the time?”
Call in on your classes’ phone conferences and maybe learn something? his mother would like to suggest, but she knows better than to go there.
“Okay, I hear you,” she says instead, “but let’s start with two hours and see how it goes. I think that’s a fair amount of time to start with.”
Avi is stomping his feet and muttering about his dysfunctional parents who just don’t care about him. And Mom feels herself relenting. Maybe I am being unreasonable, she thinks to herself. Maybe two hours is really too short a time during lockdown. Who knows what he’ll get involved with if I don’t get him the Nintendo?
No! She tries to strengthen her resolve, and reiterates, “Let’s start with two hours and see how that goes.”
But Avi has caught the indecision in his mother’s voice and is off and running. “If you really loved me,” he shouts, “you’d just give it me and I wouldn’t have to sign a dumb contract.”
Mom’s resolve is crumbling. Does Avi really think I don’t love him?
“Honey, you know that more than two hours a day isn’t good for your brain,” she says, taking one last stab. “We’ll start at two hours and work it from there.”
“I have nothing to do all day! What’s two hours? You just don’t get it. You really just don’t care.”
“Okay, three hours a day then. Will that work for you?”
“Okay, four, but that’s it and there’s no negotiating for more after that.”
Avi is happy now. Mom is not.
All I want is for my children to grow up normal and happy and know how much I love them, laments Avi’s mom. Okay, and I’d like them to love me as well. That’s not too much to ask for. Is it?
It shouldn’t be.
Yet there are many parents struggling out there just like Avi’s mom. Their greatest hope is to have healthy, loving relationships with their children, and their children to have healthy relationships with others. They think they know how to accomplish this goal: by showering their children with unconditional love, just like all the parenting experts and books advise.
Yet despite all the love poured into their children, somehow, somewhere, things have taken a wrong turn. Their kids don’t speak respectfully. They have an outsized sense of entitlement. They act out. They’re more concerned with themselves and their emotions than with the feelings of others. They lack maturity and healthy independence.
Bewildered, the parents sift through memories of the past, trying to figure out where the connection went awry, desperate to untangle the strands of thread from the mass of knots the relationship has become.
But there’s rarely a simple answer. The parent-child relationship is so complex, there might be dozens of reasons why the situation deteriorated as it did. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that at the root of many unhealthy parent-child relationships is a flawed understanding of unconditional love — which, when not practiced appropriately, can easily morph into what experts call boundary-less love.
Let’s start with getting our definitions correct.
“Unconditional love means to love someone for who they are and not for what they do,” says Batya Ruddell, certified narrative therapist, Hamodia columnist, and author of seven books including her latest, entitled On Their Derech.
“For example, a child might feel that his parents only love him when he does something that pleases them, like doing well on a test. For that day or two, his parents will be happy with him. But as soon as he does something they don’t like, he’ll feel their rejection.
“My mantra with my children has always been; ‘I don’t always like what you do, but I always love who you are.’ This draws the distinction between someone’s behavior and their essence.”
Unconditional love is not something you “bring in” when there’s a problem, Batya stresses. “It’s something a child should receive from the cradle.”
Boundary-less love is loving without regard for the importance boundaries play in expressing that love. Parents who don’t possess clear boundaries, vis-à-vis themselves or others, will struggle when they have to set appropriate boundaries with their children.
“This type of love often occurs because the parent has lost his or her ability to process their emotions separate from their child’s emotions, or because the parent consciously or unconsciously expects their child to always agree with them, validate them, and help them feel good about themselves,” says Lisa A. Romano, certified life coach (specializing in codependency and narcissistic abuse) and bestselling author of Codependent: Now What? and Quantum Tools to Help You Heal Your Life Now.
For example, 13-year-old Ari wants to play in his friend David’s backyard, but because of COVID, his mother says no. However, all his other friends will be there, and Ari doesn’t want to be the only one left out. Ari’s mom finds herself thinking, Ari will be angry at me if I don’t let him play, he won’t love me, he’ll think I’m mean.
If she acquiesces and allows him to go because she overidentifies with him and feels his pain of “being left out” too acutely, she is failing to set internal (as well as external) boundaries. She is failing to recognize that she and Ari are two emotionally separate beings, that he is not simply an extension of herself with identical feelings.
If, on the other hand, she relents and permits him to go because she fears his wrath, then she’s not setting appropriate boundaries because of her need for her child’s constant love and approval. In both cases, Ari’s mother is guilty of practicing boundary-less love.
“Unconditional love means that even when I set a boundary and my child is angry at me, I love them anyway,” says Lisa. “I acknowledge to them that I see they’re angry, but nevertheless, I set the boundary. There’s a hierarchy in a house and the parents must be at the top. The children must know there’s only one captain of the ship and it’s never them. This doesn’t negate feelings of love we have for our children. It’s actually the opposite; setting healthy boundaries is one of the ways we show unconditional love for our child.
“A sign of an unhealthy relationship,” Lisa continues, “is when I give to my child and believe I’ll be happy because I’m making my child happy. When my child is still not happy, I get angry. How dare they be so ungrateful? Because, in this case, it’s really about me, not my child. I feel good about myself when I make my son happy. When he doesn’t return my smile, I feel abandoned. That’s conditional love. Our sense of self as a parent should never depend on whether our children are happy with us at any given moment, nor should a child’s anger ever take away a mother’s feeling of love for him.”
There are a slew of reasons parents may fall into the trap of boundary-less love. Sometimes a parent’s misplaced zeal to give stems from guilt over perceived past mistakes. They may feel they weren’t sufficiently emotionally available for their children when they were younger, so they compensate by giving into every whim when the child is older. Some parents are reacting against their own overly strict childhoods and feel they must give their child whatever she desires. The opposite occurs, as well. Some parents never had healthy love modeled for them growing up, so they have no idea that they’re even doing anything wrong until their child turns on them.
Whatever the reason, as growing, evolving parents, we can all learn how to ensure that the love we deeply feel for our children is displayed and channeled in a healthy way.
Setting Boundaries Lovingly
Healthy boundaries in a parent-child relationship start with the self-esteem of the parent.
“A parent must love herself first before she can love her child,” says Lisa. “She must have faith in her parenting abilities so she can be okay with herself when she sets the boundary and the child is unhappy. If a parent can love herself freely, then she won’t get upset about how her child feels about her.”
Why is this so important? When a mother feels guilty about exercising boundaries because she knows her child won’t like it, the child will feel it and do what children do — manipulate the parent to get what they want.
Let’s say Mom sets a rule about curfew that her teen Daniel doesn’t like. Daniel may turn on his mother and accuse her of not loving him because she’s making him adhere to a curfew, when every other teen on the block is allowed out for longer.
Before Mom responds, she needs to recognize that her son’s reaction is a typical response to rule setting; it’s completely normal for kids to try and play their cards right to get their parents to change the rules. In this case, Daniel might play the “fitting in” card, which he knows is important to Mom, insisting that he’ll be the weirdo of the group if he isn’t allowed to join a past-curfew get-together.
Before Mom falls for his “you don’t really love me!” accusation, she needs to remind herself that boundary setting equals love. And that lovingly disciplining our children despite their anger is what unconditional love is all about.
“It also helps to remember that as much as kids fight back, they like boundaries,” contends Lisa. “All children want to know there’s somebody more capable than them in charge. We show that when we say, ‘Because I love you, I’m going to enforce this consequence.’ ”
What if a child stubbornly refuses to listen to a parents’ rules? Master educator Rabbi Zev Freundlich, founder and dean of Mesivta Shaarei Arazim in Monsey, New York, suggests trying the “broken record” technique. It’s essentially a constant refrain of how much the parent loves the child and hopes they will make the correct decision.
“The most powerful part of this technique,” Rabbi Freundlich says, “is to keep repeating yourself, all the while speaking in a matter of fact, non-judgmental tone.”
For example, a 13-year-old girl may say, “All my friends stay out until 11:00!”
To which the parent responds: “We love you, Miriam. The rule in our house is that you must be home at 10:15.”
“I won’t! It’s not fair!”
“We love you, Miriam. The rule in our house is that you must be home at 10:15.”
“If you loved me, you’d let me stay out with my friends. It’s a dysfunctional rule!”
“We love you, Miriam. The rule in our house is that you must be home at 10:15.”
According to Rabbi Freundlich, “if the parent is able to maintain calm throughout the broken record sequence, no matter how long it takes, then 99 percent of the time, the child will eventually relent.”
The importance of a parent maintaining composure is underscored by family psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant and The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens. “In a NASCAR race, a ‘pace car’ sets the pace of the race,” he says. “As the parent, you want to be the ‘pace car.’
“Let’s say a child says something inappropriate,” he continues. “If a parent is in a ‘parent mentality,’ he’ll be hurt and he’ll press his foot on the gas, so to speak, and accelerate — ‘After all I’ve done for you, this is what you say to me!’
“Then the child will accelerate — ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you were supposed to do that for me, you’re the parent.’
“Then the parent responds in kind and before you know it, they’re both accelerating and moving faster and faster around the track until they crash and burn. In order to have a productive conversation and bypass emotional reactivity, parents need to set the pace in the beginning.”
Though parents have to be firm and consistent with rule setting, there’s certainly room for respectful negotiation. In fact, says Lisa, it’s critical that parents be willing to negotiate with their children, especially teens.
“Always give them the opportunity to air how they feel,” she says. “If, after a discussion, the parent still feels it’s a no, then a parent can say something like, ‘I hear you, Sarah, but this is the way it has to be.’
“If the child still isn’t willing to obey, then there has to be a consequence, whether it’s less time hanging out with friends, or not giving them money for something they want. It’s also necessary to reward good behavior. By nature, children — and all humans — aim to avoid pain and seek pleasure. So if they’re rewarded for doing well, they’ll naturally try to do well.”
The Child Who Never Grows Up
In the name of “unconditional love,” parents sometimes make choices that look, on the outside, like “good parenting,” but they may actually be impeding the child’s development. Take the following scenario:
“Due to COVID-19, my married daughter had to make Pesach for the first time for her husband and toddler. She’s only 23, she’s still a kid, I couldn’t let her do it herself. So I cooked and baked all the meals and bought them new utensils and cookware and my husband brought it over.”
Is this the act of a caring, loving mother who simply wants to help out her child during a difficult period? Or is it the act of a caring, loving, enabling mother who (subconsciously) doesn’t believe her child is capable of making it on her own?
If a parent doesn’t believe in her child’s ability to take responsibility for herself — and doesn’t let her, in an age-appropriate way, make her own mistakes — then the child may likely doubt her ability to care for herself. This often causes low self-esteem, which can lead to many problematic relationships in adulthood.
Dr. Bernstein recalls coaching a 25-year-old obese woman with multiple emotional issues. “She lived at home and was unemployed,” he says. “She told me that her parents had warned her that she had to move out of their house by June, find a job, and pay her own rent.
“But she knew, from past experience, that if she didn’t find a job, her parents would pay her rent anyway. She knew they didn’t mean business, so she never made any significant effort to find employment.
“These are not healthy boundaries,” stresses Dr. Bernstein. “Especially with an adult child, it’s important sometimes to let him struggle. The parent can sit him down and say something like, ‘We think you’ll feel better about yourself, Danny, if you move out, or if we cut back on how much we subsidize.’”
As young children grow, parents have to be careful not to interfere with their decision-making abilities. An essential piece of healthy love, Dr. Bernstein says, is being able to see the child navigate the world as much as possible on his own.
“It’s a sweet spot you have to find,” he admits. “Children need to know that their parents always have their back as they continue to move forward or even when they fall backward. Yet at the same time, we need to let them make their own mistakes — and learn from them.”
According to Lisa, it’s not uncommon for parents to erroneously equate “unconditional love” with “unconditional tolerance.”
“Parents sometimes have the idea that unconditional love means they must give their children everything they ask for and they must let them speak to them in any way they want,” she says. “They believe loving their children unconditionally means tolerating bad behavior. With a smile. But this is absolutely not true.”
Unfortunately, this mistaken notion can have long-lasting repercussions:
Michael, 23, is unemployed and lives at home. He eats his mother’s home-cooked food, sleeps in his parent’s house (all day), uses their air conditioning, yet screams at his parents daily, blaming them for everything that has gone wrong in his life.
Michael’s parents are desperate. They run from therapist to therapist. How can we help our son? What should we do? (They pay for his therapy as well.) The predominant answer they receive is that you have to accept his obnoxious behavior and love him more . Don’t insist he move out, they’re told, because then you will alienate him forever.
“He’s rude to my husband, he sticks his face in my face, and when I tell him he can’t behave like that, he laughs,” says Michael’s mother. “All the therapists tell us he’s in a lot of pain and he needs us to show love to him, no matter how he treats us. I listen to lectures on how to accept my suffering with equanimity and how to send out loving vibes, despite the fact that the whole house is being turned upside down.
“But although my husband agrees with the therapists, it still doesn’t feel right to me, letting my adult child treat me like garbage and then saying, ‘Sweetheart, I love you but please stop telling me I’m the worst mother that ever lived.’ ”
Lisa agrees. “Children have to know that mutiny and triangulation in the home will not be tolerated,” she says. “I don’t care how old the child is. He has to know who’s in charge. An adult child over the age of 18 living in the home needs some level of humility and gratitude. He needs to understand that being allowed to still live at home at his age is a privilege, not a right. The parent has to be able to say firmly, ‘We have boundaries in this house. We cannot allow you to disrupt our home.’
‘If a parent allows his child to walk all over him, he’s in effect teaching the child that it’s okay to walk all over others to get what you want. This grown child is also teaching the other children in the home that it’s okay to walk all over your parents. If there’s mutiny, turning kids against parents, then we have to renegotiate living conditions.”
This is all true when the parents are a united front. “If, however, parents aren’t on the same page, the problem then is what’s going on between the parents, not with the child,” says Lisa. “Parents must find mutual ground when it comes to disciplining and consequencing their children. Otherwise, getting them to obey rules becomes almost impossible, and all you have is chaos.
“I cannot stress enough how detrimental boundary-less love is to a child,” continues Lisa. “I’ve had clients with children in their thirties who stole from them, who expected them to lie for them, or to rescue them when they got into serious trouble.”
Boundary-less love breeds narcissism; it breeds a sense of entitlement. These children grow up believing that rules don’t apply to them, that they deserve special favors.
Many kids — like 16-year-old Avi fighting for two more hours of Nintendo — try to get their way by using the “love” card: “If you really loved me, you’d give me XYZ.” Many parents fall for this, erroneously thinking it’s a way to express their unconditional love and also because they want their child to be happy. But parents cannot “make” their child happy.
“Happiness is a life skill we teach our children,” says Lisa. “It’s not learned through receiving. It’s learned through practicing humility and gratitude. And gratitude comes from first not having. ‘I don’t have, then I earn it, and only then can I fully appreciate it.’ Parents who just give are teaching entitlement, they aren’t teaching happiness.”
That’s not to say you can’t buy special treats or prizes “just because I love you.” Parents should — for no reason — tell their child, “I love you, honey”; leave love notes on her pillow; smile at her; laugh with her; show appreciation; and affirm positive behavior. These are all displays of unconditional love. But just as important is the parents’ ability to calmly identify the rules of the home, explain what will be tolerated, and what won’t be.
Setting boundaries is not a chink in the armor of parents’ unconditional love.
It’s a sign of its strength.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 708)
Oops! We could not locate your form.