Conditions of worth (and unconditional positive regard)

Published Categorized as behaviour management, self esteem, Wellbeing

This post looks at Carl Rogers’ personality theory and how part of it relates significantly to our parenting/caring of children.

Part of Carl Rogers’ theory includes the concept of ‘conditions of worth’. These are basically the conditions most of us had to fulfil as a child in order to get our significant adults’ approval. This seems like a straightforward idea, however while we are parenting, rarely are these conditions of worth brought into consciousness and seldom do we consider what we give our children approval for (or what will receive our disapproval).

On face value, conditions of worth seem like a positive thing as they can help a child learn what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. For example, sharing our toys can get approval while hitting another child will not. However, if we inadvertently give our children the message that they are only lovable if they……..(insert behaviour)…….our children can end up suppressing the emotions, thoughts and behaviour their natural being wants to engage in, in order to get approval and this can cause internal conflict. They will start to carry round a structure of shoulds and musts that can cause anxiety and a tendency to judge others in the long run. Children will always prioritise getting approval – especially if it’s not very forthcoming – over their own needs. If children are frequently on the hunt for approval because it is very hard to come by, their self-esteem will become very dependent upon approval from others. This can stay with a person well into adulthood.

To reiterate: if approval is conditional (only given when the conditions of worth are met) and we do not give our children unconditional positive regard (which could be thought of as loving them for who they are rather than what they do), they are likely to continuously crave approval. If your child feels your love unconditionally – regardless of how they behave, this craving will be less and your child’s self-esteem is likely to be good.

It makes sense to me therefore that if unconditional approval/positive regard is what a child needs to feel a connection with their parent and consequently keep self-esteem intact, disapproval is shame inducing, experienced negatively and potentially as a disconnect from the parent and a knock to their self-esteem. So if we are to teach our children to behave in socially acceptable ways, how can we do this without damaging  our relationship with them and their self-esteem? Or to use an example, if a child scribbles all over the wall and thinks you’re going to like what they have achieved, how can we prevent them from doing it again without making them feel slightly rejected or less loved?

Well I think the answer lies mostly in our basic parenting approach, and to some extent, our reactive response to any ‘misdemeanour’. It hinges very much on how much unconditional positive regard our children receive. Unconditional positive regard reduces the need for approval from external sources as it gives a child a stable sense of worth.

Giving unconditional positive regard is like a mindset. It’s about making your child feel accepted and loved as they are. It is the bedrock of solid self-esteem. Our ability to deliver this kind of parenting, unless we have consciously worked upon it, will almost definitely depend on the kind of parenting we received ourselves as child. The old adage, ‘we can’t give what we haven’t got ourselves,’ rings true here. The mindset towards a child for unconditional positive regards is along the lines of:

  • I love you whatever you do
  • You will make mistakes but that won’t stop me loving you.
  • I am happy to just ‘be’ with you.
  • I will initiate contact with you because I want to be with you.
  • I enjoy you for being you.
  • You are important to me.
  • I will be very ‘present’ when I am with you so you feel my connection.
  • I will listen to what you say and show you understanding.
  • I will accept what you feel and validate it.
  • You don’t need my approval as you have my love.

A child receiving this mindset, will feel it and feel securely loved. This child is likely to grow up to become an adult who needs less external approval than a child who doesn’t receive this. This child will also, almost certainly, experience less damage from shame if they receive some disapproval for behaving in an unacceptable way and more likely to receive the ‘correction’ in behaviour acceptingly. It seems like this is a basic, healthy parenting ‘way of being’ that is rarely focused on, yet, it seems quite fundamental to maintaining a child’s self-esteem. With the absence of any unconditional positive regard, a child could feel, at a deep level, that they have no right to exist. The opposite is therefore also true: unconditional positive regard gives you self-approval purely for existing!

So now let’s consider the reactive approach to dealing with your child when s/he has scribbled on the wall and is looking for your approval. To answer this, I refer to my many years of experience teaching children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I think there is a degree of ‘shame management’ needed. I think it is OK to let a child know that scribbling all over the wall is not appropriate or helpful, and with very young children, you are unlikely to be able to have the meaningful discussion about why it is unhelpful. I think the most effective thing to do is to state clearly (and kindly) that scribbling on the wall is not allowed and offer the positive alternative of scribbling on paper. With older children. You can of course explain why scribbling on the wall is unhelpful. And if your relationship with them is based on you having given them unconditional positive regard, they are more likely to accept this. Next, and this part is important, make reparations for any damage, however small, that slightly shaming experience triggered in your child. You could hug your child! This gives the clear message that it was the behaviour you didn’t welcome, not the child. Because you can disapprove of the behaviour but still love the child of course.

A further point about conditions or worth, though, is to say that because they are not often thought about, some can actually be issued unconsciously, relate to outdated social conditioning and do long term ‘damage’. These questions might help you consider this.

  1. What did you get approval for when you were a child? (You might be continuing these conditions of worth with your own children or you might have completely rebelled and done the opposite!)
  2. Can you think of examples of conditions of worth that could result in an adult with conditioned behaviour that could limit them, cause them distress or prevent them from reaching their potential?

Examples:

  • Boys get approval for being self-reliant, not crying, being strong.
  • Girls get approval for always putting others first, for being tidy, for being quiet and polite.
  • Approval for doing things ‘perfectly’ or really proficiently.
  • Approval for making others laugh or being cheeky.
  • Approval for holding the same opinion or sharing another’s judgements about people.
  • Approval for winning.