How Parental Affection Shapes Children

A woman smiles while sitting in the sun on a bench.
Jamy Drapeza courtesy of Thriveworks.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and many couples—yes, even parents—have plans for the big day. But the affection you show your partner also plays an important role in the lives of your children.

“It’s important for parents to show affection, and more specifically, the kind of affection that comes from a place of community, love and nurturing,” Jamy Drapeza says.

Drapeza is a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) with Thriveworks in Washington, D.C. She has been practicing for more than seven years and is the parent of a 1-year-old.

The relationship between a child’s parents is the first relationship they see aside from their own relationship with their parents. Kids look for how parents treat their friends, their elders and their neighbors, Drapeza says. Parents should keep their children in mind and consider how they can embody the kind of person they’re trying to build because kids are always watching.

Here are a few words of guidance on how to show love on the good days and the
bad days.

Be My Valentine

Continuing to date your partner throughout raising children together is important for the health of your relationship. But with young children, prying yourself away for an evening to yourselves—like on Valentine’s Day—can be a challenge.

While children may struggle to understand, parents can make it easier on them and reassure them by finding ways to include them in the holiday.

One way to share your valentine is to have a Valentine’s night for parents and a separate Valentine’s time for family. For young children, this might look like sitting in a circle or around the table and having

everyone say one thing they love about the person to the left. Families can also try making Valentine’s Day cookies or smoothies.

Drapeza suggests a shared family calendar for some situations so kids can look at it and see when their parents will be back, when family time is and when they have time to themselves. If parents are leaving their child with a sitter, family friend or relative, it’s important to let your child know when you’ll be back and do your best to stick to that time.

Everyday Affection

While big dates like your anniversary or birthday are important, the most important type of affection parents can show is regular day-in-day-out love for each other. This can be a hug, a snuggle on a cold day, a kiss on the cheek once you’re both home from work or holding hands on a family stroll.

“The affection we’re modeling with how we take care of someone doesn’t always have to be as explicit as saying, ‘I love you,’ or giving a kiss,” Drapeza says.

These small but consistent gestures help kids feel secure and strengthen their perception of their family unit’s stability. Most of the time, parents say, “I love you,” with a million smaller actions throughout the day. Maybe you set the table, pack a lunch or make breakfast.

“It doesn’t have to look like a Disney Channel special of grand gestures,” Drapeza says. “We are choosing to do more, choosing to be thoughtful in every way that we can.”

The bottom line is, there’s no one right or wrong way to show affection for your partner. What’s normal for your family may vary depending on culture, upbringing and personal preferences.

Healthy Disagreement

One of the most important times to show affection is when you and your partner are disagreeing.

Drapeza says parents should prioritize loving their partner over wanting to be right in a disagreement.

Parents can show they still love their partner, even in a disagreement, by taking the time to listen and understand, or attempt to understand, what their partner is saying and giving them that space. This can look like taking turns and putting the brakes on the conversation when needed.

Being open and actively considering the other person’s point of view keeps the conversation respectful and teaches children empathy, listening skills and conflict resolution.

Another way to help children feel secure is for parents to make sure they continue doing all the little things they do that show their affection for their partner. For example, if you always make lunch for your partner, keep it up.

Sticking to routines like coming together to eat dinner or reading a bedtime story shows kids that even when there is a problem, that problem isn’t bigger than your love for them or your love for each other, according to Drapeza.

Valentine’s Day will be here before you know it, so keep these tips in mind leading up to the big day—and every day—to be a good model for your children.


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