How Conditional Love and Approval Harm Children
As parents, we feel that no matter what, we’ll always love the children who share our lives. We may believe that they know and understand this, even when we disapprove of their actions.
When we show disapproval for their actions, we believe that children know the difference between our love for them and our approval of their behavior.
Does the child really feel an adult’s love when they are met with the adult’s disapproval?
I’m not sure that they do. Just because we feel that love deeply, doesn’t mean they know it to be true.
We convince ourselves that children feel our love even when we express disapproval of their behavior.
Let’s consider the child’s perspective.
Martel, the first child to come into my life, asked me to do a video with him. He has seen my videos and read some of my website. So we sat down and talked about his thoughts about parents and parenting. It was unrehearsed.
There is a moment in the video starting around 2:46 when I ask him what he wants to tell people about what it’s like to be a kid. He talks about how it feels when parents control their kids. He says, “it makes you feel like your parents don’t love you.”
Conditional approval and love are a form of control.
The point of conditional approval is to control a child’s behavior. We want them to stop or start doing something and we show our approval or disapproval.
Perhaps it is less overt control than physical punishments or threats. But it is control.
If we think back to our own childhood experiences, when an adult expressed disappointment or disapproval in something you did, did you really think, “wow, she really loves me, that’s why she’s showing her disappointment and disapproval!”
If we are really honest, it didn’t feel like love when adults disapproved of our behavior. So even though we may feel that love deeply, all the time, the child may be having an entirely different experience.
Let’s walk through some of the results of conditional love and approval.
A child behaves in ways that we don’t like. Behavior includes things like the way the child dresses, talks, walks, or choices of food, toys or games, or friends. It is not just about the child hitting a sibling or calling someone a name.
We show our disapproval as a way to influence or try to control the child.
The child begins to understand that continued love and good will from adults depends on pleasing the adult. They begin to look outside of themselves for love and approval.
This control may well result in external motivation. I’ve certainly seen this and there is evidence pointing to this result.
There is ample psychological research showing that external motivation is more likely to lead to lower self-worth, destructive behavior, a lack of trust in their own judgment, and overall lower mental health.
A child that grows up with conditional approval and control exerted by others may also internalize these experiences and exert conditional approval on herself without the need for the adult to be present to say those things directly.
This kind of internalized control (which we mistakenly believe is “self” control) diminishes the individual’s feelings of autonomy and freedom to choose her own actions. There is also evidence that when young people behave in ways that are consistent with their internal values and wishes, there is sense of well-being.
The other result of this conditional approval is that the child, as she grows, substitutes her own inner authority for that of others.
As she moves out of the sphere of influence of parents and other adults, she may then substitute her own decision-making and internal authority for those of her peers.
One example of the harmful impact of conditional approval is seen in girls (or boys) who come to believe that their self-worth is based on how they look or how much they weigh.
If we praise girls for the cute outfit they’re wearing, how beautiful they are, or comment on their weight, they learn that people give them love and approval based on their appearance and that certain looks or body types are more valued than others.
Conditional approval and love operate at so many levels in our society.
We believe that we are only worthy if we are productive.
We believe that we need people to like us in order to be a good person.
We believe we are valued more when we do well in school or at work.
But let’s go back to our interactions with children.
There is fear in letting go of approval or disapproval of a child’s behavior.
Shouldn’t we, as responsible adults, signal to a child when their behavior is not appropriate or harmful? Wouldn’t it be inauthentic or irresponsible not to do this?
Let’s say a child lashes out physically or yells insults when angry and hurts another person.
We could focus on the behavior.
Frankly, it’s easier to do that.
Or we could focus on what is happening underneath. When a person is struggling emotionally and feels bad inside, that often results in taking it out on others.
As an adult, I’ve certainly done this. And I have observed this in children as well. Instead we can focus on what is happening beneath that behavior. When we trust and respect children, we know that ultimately they want to feel good.
When we focus on the surface behavior, we ignore what is going on inside the child who is in pain and whose pain shows up in behavior that may harm others.
We also send the message that appearances are more important than honesty and openness about our underlying emotions.
If we shift our frame-of-reference from children needing a long period of controlled socialization in order to become proper adults, to one of trusting that children want to develop respectful and loving relationships as part of their natural development, we can let go of this dichotomy of approval and disapproval.
Is it really as simple as viewing children differently?
Yes and no.
Because we have grown up in a conditional culture we live with the effects of our childhood experiences. And this shows up in our relationships with children.
We have internalized conditional love and approval of ourselves.
How often do you berate yourself for making a mistake? How often to you judge your own behavior as good or bad? How often do you say to yourself “I should (insert your favorite phrase here)!”
In order to be an unconditionally loving parent who is willing to be with a child and see beyond their behavior, I need to learn how to do that with myself. Or perhaps it is that I am learning to do it with them, in order to do it with myself.
What I have come to realize is that I need to heal myself in order to be the unconditionally loving parent I want to be. Until I am whole and connected to my inner voice, until I am able to love myself unconditionally, I will only be able to be unconditionally loving in a limited way with Martel and Greyson (or Rob, my partner).
Parenting isn’t always about the children who share our lives.
More often, it’s about ourselves and giving ourselves what we didn’t get, so that we can get out of the way of the living our children need to do.
Often our approval or disapproval of their behavior is tied deeply to the kinds of disapproval we experienced in our own childhoods.
When we are in this place, not only can we look below the surface of the child’s behavior, we can look below the surface of our own behavior and reactions. We can take the opportunity to practice unconditional love and approval with ourselves and the children in our lives.
Unconditionally loving our children is frankly, hard. Ok, sometimes really hard! I know from my own experience as a mom and from working with parents all over the world. You are not alone and there are tips and strategies that can help you! To learn more about what the kinds of solutions I offer, go to my consultation page or read testimonials from others who have worked with me.