Accepting Your Children As They Are
by Carol Alexander MA RP RCC
Accepting your child as they are is one of the most powerful influences on a child’s emotional well being and behaviour. Children who are raised in an environment where they feel total acceptance for who they are and how they feel at any given time, feel loved and valued and internalize that feeling of acceptance. Parental acceptance of emotions promotes a more caring attitude toward oneself leading to an internalization of self worth.
You might be reading this and thinking, “wait does this mean my kid can do whatever they want?” No! Accepting your child and their FEELINGS is not the same as accepting BEHAVIOURS. As a Psychotherapist I counsel parents on how to incorporate acceptance into the parent child relationship while managing behaviours and setting reasonable limits at the same time.
An effective way of managing behavior is a technique called “emotion coaching”. By focusing on the meaning behind the behaviour rather than the behavior itself, we are proactively teaching social and emotional skills. Emotion coaching emphasizes emotional regulation rather than behavior modification. It views all behavior as a form of communication, making an important distinction between children’s behavior and the feelings that underlie their actions. It is about helping children to understand their varying emotions as they experience them, why they occur, and how to handle them.
The system is comprised of two key elements – empathy and guidance. The empathy part involves recognizing and labeling a child’s emotions, regardless of the behavior, in order to promote emotional self-awareness. The circumstances might also require setting limits on appropriate behavior and even consequences, but key to this process is the guidance, helping a child to recognize and label certain emotions and feelings, such as “angry” or “sad”.
However key to success, is recognizing that a child needs to be returned to a relaxed, calm state before we can reason with them. If we propose solutions before we empathize, it’s like trying to build a house before a firm foundation has been laid. Empathy helps the child to calm down so they are more open and able to reason, helping to create neural connections in the rational brain to become an efficient manager of emotion.
When managing behavior, adults usually rely on distracting, dissuading or consequencing a child. But when a child is in an emotional state, particularly an intense one, they are unable to engage with the more rational parts of their brain.
You may think that empathizing with children will lead to an endorsement of bad behavior. But emotion coaching also involves establishing the boundaries of acceptable behavior and setting limits. You can condone the feeling underlying the behavior, but not the behavior itself.
Unconditional Positive Regard in Parenting
Getting children to behave based on parental acceptance works in the short term but can have damaging long term consequences. Children parented in this way are more likely to feel stressed and conflicted by the internalization of parental expectations, exhibit a rigid and low quality performance in the domain in which the parents regard was contingent, had an overall poor sense of well being, and displayed a negative affect in relation to themselves - children who received conditional approval were more likely to act as their parents wanted but the compliance came at a steep price. These children tended to resent and dislike their parents, reporting their happiness after achieving something was short lived, and that they often felt guilty and ashamed (Assor & Roth, 2007). Lack of parental emotional support during childhood is associated with increased levels of depressive or anxious symptoms and chronic health problems in childhood (Shaw et al., 2004).
Neuroscience research on the developing brain has shown the mind develops within the context of relationship. The parent child relationship is the most significant environment of a young child’s life and a positive parental influence can have a profound impact on brain development. Further, coherent interpersonal relationships have the power to produce coherent neural integration within the child, which is at the root of adaptive self-regulation (Siegel, 2001). Neurobiological research shows us that parenting in this accepting way builds brains, and that neural connections are created with positive, nurturing experiences between the parent and child.
If this sounds like it could be helpful please feel free to schedule a consultation. I can show you how to create a parental connection that focuses on acceptance of who your child is, not how they behave, creating an optimal relationship for the child to grow and realize his or her full potential.
Assor, Avi & Roth, Guy. (2007). The harmful effects of parental conditional regard. Scientific Annals of the Psychological Society of Northern Greece, 5. Retrieved from www.hsf.bgu.ac.il/edu/files/eduhome/segel/avi_assor/harmful_conditional_regard_07.pdf
Shaw, B. A., Krause, N., Chatters, L. M., Connell, C. M., & Ingersoll-Dayton, B. (2004). Emotional support from parents early in life, aging, and health. Psychology and Aging, 19, 4-12.
Siegel, Daniel. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships, “mindsight”, and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2).