Parenting with Nurture

Nurture is one of the 4 relationship dimensions that Theraplay® identifies as crucial to a healthy parent-child bond. Here are some important things to know about nurture: 

What does Nurture teach children?

At its core, nurture helps children know in a deep way that they are unconditionally lovable and that the world is a safe place. Nurture begins the first moment a baby cries, and an adult responds. Attentive parents create smooth waves of regulation wherein the baby is distressed, then comforted, distressed, then comforted. Parents attune to the baby's cues and know if she is tired, hungry, wet, bored or overstimulated. Parents serve as the baby's external regulation. Through meeting her needs over and over again, over millions of repetitions, the baby begins to build basic trust in the world, know she is loved, and internalize the ability to self-regulate.

What does Nurture build?

Nurture supports the child in 3 main ways: regulation, self-esteem, and empathy. As just described, young children have no way of meeting their own needs. They are completely and utterly helpless and dependent on the adults around them, for everything. Even on an emotional level, babies do not have the capacity to regulate or understand their feelings. It is only through sensitive adults meeting their needs and accurately reflecting their feelings back to them that children begin to learn how they feel and how to feel better.

A child's self-esteem is formed through how we interact with them. Their sense of self, others and the world is deeply effected by how they are treated by caregivers in their first years of life. During those first years, the baby seems to be asking, "Who am I? Am I a person worthy of care, tenderness, and warmth? Am I lovable unconditionally? Is it safe to need others? Is the world a predictable place, or a dangerous and chaotic one?" The actions of the baby's caregivers will largely shape the answers to these questions. Consistent nurturing responses help the growing child understand her worth, lovability and safety in the world.

Nurturing responses also build the base foundation of empathy in young children. Through having her caregivers "mirror" her feelings through their voice tone and facial expressions, she learns about the world of emotions and how to resonate emotionally with others. Through experiencing the empathy of others, she finds empathy for others.

How can I incorporate more Nurture into my parenting?

Be responsive to your child's physical and emotional needs. Learn her signals. Try to verbalize and meet unspoken needs and feelings. For example, if you child is tantruming over something "small" and seems tired, you might say, "You are so frustrated and also so sleepy. You need a little rest. Come here sweetie, and snuggle with me for a minute."

Be empathic with your child even when her distress seems like it's over something "small." To you, it doesn't matter if the cup is orange or blue, but to your child, it's important. We teach empathy to children by showing them that if something is important to them, it's important to us, too.

Remember you can set boundaries and say "no" in a nurturing way. You can hold a limit while still reflecting back, "This is so frustrating for you, and you are so angry with Mom right now. It doesn't feel fair to you at all!"

You can also incorporate nurturing rituals into your day to build in some sweetness. Some great examples are daily snuggle times, rocking and singing to children, combing a child's hair or applying lotion, or creating a special handshake. For more ideas on this, check out "25 Ways to Connect with Your Child Through Touch" or "15 Ways to Build Your Child's Self-Esteem Without Praise."


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Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and adoption She especially loves helping defiant, aggressive little ones and exasperated parents.