An interesting exercise to conduct is this: To small children, everything you say means either “I love you” or “I don’t love you.” Try translating everything you say to a child during the day to this language. It’s very eye-opening.
“Did you wash your hands? They look dirty.” – I don’t love you.
“Why do you always drop your backpack by the door so it’s in everybody’s way?” – I don’t love you. And you are in my way.
“Are you done?” – I don’t love you. And you are a drain on my time.
“You grew out of these shoes already?” – I don’t love you. And you are a drain on my money.
This is an evolutionary survival mechanism for children. They completely depend on an adult’s goodwill for survival, so they try to gauge the probability of you taking care of them and not abandoning them to wild animals. You know that you love them no matter what but they don’t.
Another thing to remember is this: you can never give a child enough love and attention. They are little bottomless pits. That’s because they are trying to extract enough love from you to last them for the rest of their lives. So don’t beat yourself up if your kid looks starved for attention. It’s not about you. It’s a long-term strategy.