Toni is sitting cross-legged on the rug, sipping her steaming mug of coffee. This way she can relax with her pal whilst being close enough to little Emma to respond quickly if something goes into her mouth that doesn't look like food. One minute the two young mothers are sharing a story and laughing together; the next moment Toni's face crumples and she bursts into tears. The stresses that she's facing suddenly rise up like a tidal wave and everything seems too much.
But before her friend can reach her, there's two chubby little hands holding her cheeks, and the child's soft little face against her.
'Mummy sad,' says her daughter, stroking her, 'Mummy sad.' Her baby's eyes are nearly crying, too. And Toni laughs and cries at the same time.
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She doesn't want her toddler, Emma, to be distressed because of her upset but she's amazed how, although she had seemed so absorbed in her play, she's suddenly there, trying to comfort her. 'I suddenly realized how tuned in she is to my emotion,' Toni reflects afterward.
That makes sense because, although the cortex (the 'thinking' outer layer of the brain) is not yet fully developed in the toddler brain, the limbic system, (the seat of emotions) is already well tuned in to her own experience and to those around her.
This means that your little one is very responsive to the tone of your voice, and all the other non-verbal messages you transmit: your energy level, your breathing, your facial expression, and your eye contact.
We can learn so much from our children, because it's often our cortex (the thinking, reasoning part of the brain) that gets in the way of unconditional love and being present to others in a helpful way. Young children haven't developed our adult tendency to "fix" everything. So often, as grown ups, our own discomfort with another's upset causes us to rush in trying to minimize the other's experience, to judge, or to offer a solution.
Think about the well-meaning but usually unhelpful comments adults make in times of upset:
"It's not really that bad."
"It could have been worse."
Or we rush in with questions, when what the other person first needs is to "feel felt", because it's the human connection of unconditional love that calms us.
When we experience that bond, the body starts releasing the chemicals that restore our natural balance. The unconditional love that a toddler offers isn't about "fixing you" or asking "Why?"; it lets you be where you are right now, tears and all. And the amazing thing that neuroscience now knows is that when we have the release of tears or of laughter, which naturally erupt when we're unconditionally loved, the emotional overwhelm subsides and our ability to think clearly re-establishes itself.
Little children intuitively know our human need to be held and to be comforted without any explanation needed, without judgements made, or solutions offered. Little ones know how to just "be there" — we'd do well to learn from them.
Interested about how you can further exhibit unconditional love?
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