Ask yourself, "Is this from love or fear?" Then ask your child.

Posted: February 28, 2024

In her iconic book, Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control, Heather Forbes cites the idea that all emotion is based in either love or fear.  In her equally iconic book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff highlights the fact that we often judge ourselves ruthlessly, which only interferes with our relationships. I have my Parenting Coach Certification students read these two works as assignments for very good reasons. 

As I read students' journals on these works, I realize that there's a gem in them when it comes to parenting (well, lots of gems, but this is today's gem) - why are we so prone to parenting from fear rather than love? And why don't we teach self-compassion to our children? 

Parenting from fear likely has "perceived safety" as its roots. Prehistoric humans had to live in fear to survive and we're still using that part of the brain that developed in them to protect ourselves and our children from danger. Today, most of us are not in imminent danger of demise, but we continue to act like we or our children are, due to the part of the brain called the amygdala (the threat alarm) that we've inherited from our ancestors. 

And self-compassion? Well, we have a long history of self-criticism, as well.  It often has origins in our developmental histories such as parental rejection, hostility, neglect, or unresponsiveness. Source. Many people get stuck in the habit of self-criticism because it gives them the illusion of control. Since they can't actually control what other people think of them, they turn to something they can control — their own self-talk — and channel all that anxious energy into that. Source.

How do we use this information to improve our parenting and to enhance self-compassion in ourselves and our children?

First, we realize that we're operating from either fear or love. It seems too simplified, but if you test your responses to your children's behavior to see from which category they originate, you'll notice a pattern. This insight can lead to this question: Is fear the dominant or too-frequent driver of our interactions? Once we bring this to our awareness, we can make a change. We can speak from love instead of fear. 

Second, we become aware of our own inner critic and test ourselves to see if our interactions are based on that cruel voice. Are we subjecting our thoughts to constant rejection?  Do we have a hard time accepting others' appreciation of us?  Might we be unhealthily projecting our need for perfection onto our children without realizing it? Again, with this insight, we can greatly enhance our relationships with our children and others. We'll also notice an improvement in behavior because our kids won't perceive us as ruthless judges, but instead as supporters of their natural development as children and teens. 

Once these concepts have started to work for you, how wonderful would it be to teach them to your children?  You can help them become aware of the idea that all emotion is either love or fear-based.  You can then ask, "Was what you just said to your brother from love or fear?" And to support their self-compassion, you can ask, "Was what you just told yourself loving toward you? How would you like to change it to love?"

Reading the 2 books I've cited above can be enormous steps toward helping your children gain self-compassion and live from love. If you'd like help on this parenting journey, click here to learn about parent coaching. And if you'd like to become a parent coach to assist others in their journeys, click here.  


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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter