Danny was a sixteen-year-old in the treatment program I ran for adolescent substance abusers. He was living with his single-parent mother, who found she was unable to control his behavior. At one point in a family therapy session, she hauled off and slapped him in frustration. She turned to Danny with tears in her eyes and said: “I don’t know what to do; I love you so much.” At the next session she announced she was sending her son to live with his father in another state. It was a risky move since the father had not demonstrated an interest in Danny. Sometimes love risks letting go. After about a month, she called to tell me that Danny was doing well in school and had obtained his driver’s license. Unfortunately, this good news was followed by a sobbing call from her about six months later. She said Danny had run a red light and was hit broadside and killed. Although devastated by this news, she recounted how grateful she was to have expressed her love for Danny at our last therapy session.
The Importance of Unconditional Love
We are wired to want to love, be loved and belong, author Brene Brown says. Without a belief that a parent unconditionally loves us, we will struggle to develop and move out in the world as successful, responsible young adults. We need to move closer to our young adults in love to free them to leave.
What do I mean? Our love for children of all ages is a protective force, as Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg says in Raising Kids to Thrive. It creates a sense of safety and security that represents the critical launch pad for the adolescent/young adult separation process. If our kids know they are loved, no matter what, they will take risks, share openly with us, believe in themselves, and know in the worst of times someone loves them and has their back. Unconditional love is not binding; it has no strings attached. It’s not about behavior; it’s about their being. They are loved because they are our children with inherent worth and value. Unconditional love then is the antidote to shame. It is the most important gift we can give our kids at any stage of their lives.
How Do We Express Unconditional Love that Lets Go?
It’s essential to express unconditional love verbally to our children. I know in the old school way of doing things parents didn’t tell their kids they loved them, especially fathers. This was true in my case with my father and it led me to wonder if he would emotionally disown me if I ever did something egregious. In my workshops I encourage parents to write a love letter to their young adult to help them move on with their lives. Here’s an excerpt from what one parent wrote:
“I want you to know that I love you – I always have and always will – no matter what has happened in the past or will happen in the future. You mean the world to me and that will never change. I will always be here for you.”
Don’t assume that our young adults know we love them. Make sure they have no doubt. Writing a handwritten letter is the best way to communicate this. I remember when I read my letter to my ten-year-old son and tears came to his eyes, followed by my tears.
Nonverbal Love Letters
It’s not enough to say “I love you unconditionally” as part of the letting go process at any stage of a child’s life. It is vital to back it up with actions. Here are some of the most valuable nonverbal love letters you can send.
- First, we need to keep our promises. I have worked with so many families where a parent, often the noncustodial parent, made promises and failed to keep these. Too many kids have been left looking out the window and waiting for the promise to come true. If we can’t keep our word, how can kids believe our words of unconditional love?
- Second, we need to continually be lifting and affirming their valuable qualities, particularly those that have to do with their character and personality as opposed to their behaviors.
- Third, we need to be accessible to our kids, not just as they may fit into our schedule but allowing unplanned time to hang out where they have a chance to bring up matters of importance to them.
- Fourth, if we love our kids, we will show an interest in getting to know them and what’s important to them. Nonjudgmental listening skills are critical.
- Finally, I must remind parents that their young adult son or daughter is a work in progress. What is happening now will not continue. So the attribute we most need to foster is “patience.” This too shall pass is the mantra we can all adopt.
We can’t control our young adult’s future, but our words and actions of love can give them the foundation they need to pursue a happy and successful life.