At a weekend retreat many years ago, my wife Anne was lamenting that her dad couldn’t say he loved her. That retreat helped her to see that he had been telling her he loved her, just not in the way that she desired. How did he express his feelings? By showing up at our house with his toolbox and fixing everything that I couldn’t, which meant pretty much everything. His quiet acts of service spoke volumes about how much he cared about Anne and me. I often do this kind of reframing of parent’s expressions of love with my patients, and it can be life changing.

Tariah’s dad was, in her mind, a workaholic, leaving for work each morning at 6 a.m. and not returning until it was dark. He then spent more time in his home office. She often felt unimportant and unloved. I had Tariah share her feelings with her dad in the office one day and asked him to share his side of the story. With tears in his eyes, he told Tariah he was sorry she felt unloved. He described growing up impoverished with a father who left when he was five years old. For a short time, he and his mother lived out of her car, and he grew up always afraid of going to bed hungry. He decided that when he became a dad, his kids would never experience the lack he grew up with. His long hours slaving away at work were his way of showing his love.

Sofia describes her mom as a worry wart and a micromanager. Every day when she walks in the door from school, her mom barrages her with 50 questions about her day. And she just can’t seem to stay out of Sofia’s business. As it turns out, Sofia was born with a brain malformation that required several surgeries in her first year of life. Her mom was told she might have permanent brain damage and be unable to attend regular school. That produced the black cloud that follows Sofia and her mom around to this day. It makes sense why her mom worries so much about her. Her constant questioning and micromanaging is one of the ways that she shows her love to her daughter.

When Hayley brings her hurts and challenges to her dad, he listens for a bit but then quickly goes into overdrive fix-it mode. He barrages her with solutions and feedback when all she wants is for him to just listen. In my office, her dad shared how much he hates to see her suffer. His penchant for quickly going into problem-solving mode is one way that he shows his love for her.

What do all of these stories have in common? Children misunderstand their parents’ behaviors as being negative. I want Tariah’s dad to spend more one-on-one time with her. I encouraged Sofia’s mom to let go of her current worries and see her for the magnificent young woman that she has become. And I helped Hayley’s dad to just listen to her, get in her shoes and see her experience through her eyes. That is almost always what kids, and for that matter, all of us, want from our loved ones.

So, I encourage kids to look for the ways their moms and dads do show their love, just as my wife did with her dad. In this way, they can avoid walking around feeling unloved and with hearts full of anger and resentment. I also encourage kids to find other adults who can be there for them in the ways they need. These are ways that they can show themselves love when their parents can’t.

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a Behavioral Pediatrician who counsels girls aged grade school thru college. Listen to his weekly podcast, Raising Daughters, to gain information on raising strong, resilient girls. For more info on Dr. Jordan’s retreats, summer camps and books visit