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Early Childhood Love and Nurturing

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Beyond having their physical needs for food, water, shelter, and hygiene met, young children also need plenty of emotional and cognitive support, love, and nurturing. Adult caregivers should make it a point to express love and affection for their children every day. Doing so helps young children to feel safe, comforted, and included in a warm, bonded relationship. Such feelings of security actually increase children's capacity to learn and to develop mentally and physically.

happy father and sonCaregivers can show love to their children in many different ways. Cuddling, hugging, tickling, or (safely and gently) wrestling can all be used to communicate physical affection. Families can also verbally nurture their children through statements of unconditional love, such as a daily, "I love you." Reinforcing words of praise can be offered any time caregivers notice their young children making a positive choice, displaying a new skill or ability, or being loving towards others. For example, Mom can say, "Jimmy, thank you so much for helping us set the table for dinner." This statement of praise shows Jimmy that he (and his behavior) is important to Mommy. Furthermore, he'll start to internalize such affirmations and they will encourage him to engage in helpful behavior in the future. Love and nurturing can also be shown through thoughtful gestures. Dad can make a point to remember that Katie enjoys helping him whenever he works around the house. By asking her to join him in building new shelves, Dad shows Katie that her presence is enjoyed and wanted.

Overall, caregivers communicate love and nurturing through how they live their own lives. If caregivers keep an upbeat positive attitude, smile, and stay as calm and patient as possible during difficult situations, they will create a peaceful and positive environment for their children, young and old. However, this doesn't mean that caregivers should neglect appropriate discipline and guidance. Maintaining age-appropriate expectations of children and setting consistent consequences and privileges based on their behavior will actually help to show children that they are loved in addition to helping keep them safe and secure. More information about disciplining young children can be found here .

It's important to remember that no adults, and especially parents and caregivers, are perfect. Everyone has a bad day now and then. Caregivers need to expect and to accept that they will make mistakes. However, if caregivers find that they are consistently grouchy, irritable, negative, or sad, they need to get assistance to help them be as healthy and as happy as possible for themselves and for their children. Depressed or otherwise troubled parents can reach out to their support system: friends, grandparents, religious group members, neighbors, etc for encouragement and assistance. Sometimes though, talking to friends and family members isn't enough. If caregivers have symptoms of low mood, excessive irritability, sleeping or eating problems, or other issues that affect work and interpersonal relationships, obtaining help from a mental health professional is a good idea. Admitting that you need professional help is not a sign of weakness. It's one of the bravest things caregivers can do to show their children how much they love them and to model good self-care.

Mental health clinicians in the United States can be found in our online therapist directory, or by looking up "mental health" in your local telephone directory. If money is tight and you are worried that you may not be able to afford care, let the agency or therapist know that during your initial contact. Many mental health agencies and practitioners offer sliding-fee scales (reduced fees that are based on a family's level of income) to people without insurance or when money is tight.

Beyond showing love and affection, caregivers can nurture young children's growing minds by providing interactive and stimulating activities. While it may be tempting to allow young children to watch lots of television, especially educational or age-appropriate cartoons, it's not healthy. Young children should watch a maximum of one to two hours of educational television a day. More than this can rob important time away from physical exercise, creative activities, or family time that will help children grow and develop. In addition, preschool-aged children are especially sensitive to the effects of media, as they are not yet capable of separating fantasy from reality. As a result, excessive violence or other intense programs can frighten young children. For more information, see our article on the effects of media on children and adolescents (coming soon!).

Instead of allowing their children to watch endless amounts of television, caregivers can read stories, sing songs, play board games, or put puzzles together with their young children. Children can also use different art mediums such as drawing, coloring, molding clay, or painting. Encouraging make-believe games and play, such as dress-up, "auto shop," or "house" can also provide hours of entertainment. Young children can get their exercise through outdoor games or trips to the playground or park. Furthermore, caregivers can arrange fun trips to the zoo, museums, or other places where educational and entertaining activities for children take place.

Even though parents often have busy schedules of their own, they should make it a daily priority to spend time with their families. It's also important in homes with multiple children that each child get some one-on-one time with each parent on a regular basis. Even unstructured activities can provide this needed one-on-one time. For instance, allowing children to go to the pharmacy with Mom or sit in the kitchen while Dad washes dishes can provide an opportunity to share feelings, catch up on news, and laugh together. The important goal accomplished here is that young children feel included and part of the larger family home. For more information, on nurturing activities appropriate for young children, see our article on Preoperational Stage Child Enrichment .