Unconditional Positive Regard

By Emily H. Carroll

I don’t believe in the concept of a bad child.  As a therapeutic mentor, I met children who set fires, physically and emotionally harmed others, ran away, and struggled with honesty, and not one bad apple graced my presence. One client, Joey*, attempted to steal a fidget spinner during our session. His hands fumbled with the small, precious gadget, attempting to conceal it in his wadded-up jacket.  Judy* threatened to fatally harm another child. In my work with Joey, Judy, and children more generally, I often consider the notion of unconditional positive regard and I have come to believe that such acceptance holds a special kind of power to build and transform.

Unconditional positive regard is that feeling you get around someone with whom you feel safe to just be.  This person could witness you in your most selfish moment and they would still look at you with kind, unassuming eyes, even as they hold you accountable.  It may sound ironic that a child lighting fires around the house needs some loving energy, but when we consider what we teach a person when we blast them with shame and withhold our love, we find that we are punishing one kind of violence with another kind of violence, passing on the plague of hurt. 

In the face of unsafe behavior, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust serve as natural, protective human responses. Too often, however, we let this warranted emotional response simmer and morph into vilification of the person, or in this case, child, who does harm.  I believe that the process of labeling a child bad and wrong nurtures the roots of violence. When we see a child as a monster, even if unconsciously or subtly, we close a door to effective connection, change, and growth. We miss an opportunity to understand the pain fueling the behavior.   

I have found that connecting to and validating the child’s pain, as well as seeing them with eyes that mirror their goodness, has opened up powerful doors to positive therapeutic work.  I set my intention upon adding and modeling positive connection and empathy to the child as opposed to defining them by the actions I don’t agree with. I endeavor to show up to each newfound delight, disappointment, and fear as an attentive, warm witness. “I see you, I hear you,” I say with my body, face, words, voice, and actions. With Joey, it became about witnessing and validating the injustice of some kids having more than others. For Judy, I validated the theme of double standards and desire for interpersonal connection. When I create accepting space for a child’s feelings, I nourish their own ability to hold themselves in positive regard.     

Even saying “no,” or perhaps especially saying “no” serves as an important opportunity to teach a child that a limit can exist alongside positive regard. For Judy, validating her anger came with the important caveat that hurting others doesn’t help. Limits and boundaries can become a means of expressing care and valuing wellbeing, as opposed to a means of exerting power and control. When I remember to maintain this mindset, the work becomes seamless and growth takes hold.    

Never underestimate the power of unconditional positive regard. We can model a different way of being, a different way of responding to pain that pumps the breaks on violence. An adult’s welcoming presence and shame-free limit-setting can lay the foundation for a child to grow their own internal source of acceptance. Ironically, acceptance can serve as the catalyst for change.    

*Names and identifying information have been altered to protect the client’s confidentiality.

I gain a great deal of daily inspiration and influence from Sarah Blondin’s work and I love to spread her magic. Find her meditations on her podcast, “Live Awake,” or the app, “Insight Timer.” She also has a book called “Heart Minded, How to Hold Yourself and Others in Love.”

Emily earned her BA in Child Study and Human Development from Eliot-Pearson in 2018 and since then, she has worked as a nanny, therapeutic mentor, and in-home therapy team member. Emily will begin a Master of Social Work degree in September, 2021 at Boston College.  

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