When I talk to clients about their family upbringing, I often get the response, "We had food on the table, a roof over our heads and clothes to wear". There is so much this description leaves out.
Abraham Maslow developed his well known Hierarchy of Needs including food, shelter and safety. What is left out, is what I call the three A's required to maximize our life experience …
As children, we need to know our right to be on this planet and in the lives of those who raise us is never in question. Parents have what children perceive as ultimate authority over their lives. The parent who abuses that can put the child in a state of mortal fear, creating a foundation for emotional problems. Children should hear, "We brought you into this world and welcome you as part of our lives", or, for adoptees, "We chose to make you part of our family, no less than any other child we have or may have in the future". The extraordinary power parents have needs to be put to use for children, not against them. This does not mean all behavior is acceptable, but that a child's life has inherent validity.
This may sound like a synonym for approval, but it goes further. The idea behind affirmation is that a child's character is never in question. Mistakes in judgment are not "flaws", but are: mistakes, pure and simple. Affirmed children and, later, adults, are better able to stand on their own making important decisions and not second guessing themselves with regard to their essential integrity. Affirmation continues beyond age 18. Children outgrow their need for approval, but the need for affirmation, be it quiet or loud, continues. Healthy affirmation outlives us and is an important gift to those we love.
The importance of physical affection has been scientifically and anecdotally validated. Babies physically wither if they are not held and stroked. The effects of withholding of affection have been demonstrated in children raised in institutions that do not offer healing touch. Touch creates a bridge between what is spoken by voice and meant by intention. Couples are clear that affection is often as important as sex; in a world where they have given each other permission to share what they would not share with anyone else, the daily small demonstrations of intimate attention carry great meaning, affirmation of their mutual attraction to each other. This carries a powerful message of safety, as well.
Approval, affirmation, and affection must coexist with each other. There is little chance of success if one is left out, or one emphasized more than the other, unless there is a particular need to do so. People can withstand incredibly difficult circumstances and thrive with these elements in place.
Gilbert Bliss is a Psychotherapist in private practice in Towson, Maryland. His experience includes work with individuals, couples, families and children in bereavement. His web site is www.gblisscounselor.com.