General Parenting Issues — 06 June 2008
How to affirm your children throughout their lives

It is heartbreaking to see the pain some adults experience as they relate their unfulfilled needs of affirmation from their parents. Why is it that we are so heavily dependent on pleasing our parents even after we leave home and become autonomously functioning adults? Why do we empower our parents with defining our level of self-esteem and feel less secure, regardless of our accomplishments, when we fail to receive the appropriate kudos from them?

Many research studies have supported John Bowlby’s theory about mother-infant attachment: “ The mother figure provides a set of conscious and/or unconscious rules for the organization of information relevant to attachment.” Later studies by Belsky and Rovine demonstrated that attachment relationships are also formed with the father. Research by Cassidy demonstrated the relationship between the quality of attachment to the mother and a 6-year-old child’s self-esteem. It supported Bowlby’s theory that: “When a child sees the parent as responsive, accepting, available, and independence-encouraging, a secure attachment develops and the child sees her-or himself as worthy.”

Thomas Crook and Allen Baskin of the National Institute of Health and John Eliot of the University of Maryland research found that “Depression in adult life may be related to parental rejection and control through techniques such as derision, negative evaluation, and withdrawal of affection during childhood.”

It appears that parental input is the source of self-esteem that begins in childhood and continues through adulthood. People who do not feel supported and validated by their parents are forever struggling to act in ways that will solicit the desired approval to allow their self-worth to become securely established. Some anxiously wait until the parent’s last breath, yearning to hear the cherished words; “I love you”. Those who are not fortunate enough to receive their parents’ verbal approval may continue to yearn for this validation for the rest of their lives.

Being a parent is an enormous task and responsibility. It is very physically demanding when children are young, becomes challenging as they reach adolescence and seems to be easier once the youngsters mature into adulthood. Actually, the emotional tasks of being available, affirming, encouraging and validating our children never end. Those parents who assume that their adult children no longer need their positive input err to the detriment of their offspring.

If providing a supportive and affirming role is all parents’ essential task for life, how can we best accomplish it with our youngsters and adult children?
Bowlby’s four principals of being: Responsive, Accepting, Available, and Independence- encouraging, can well guide us in every phase of our children’s development. Here are a few ideas:

• With infants: parents need to be responsive to every need of the child, be accepting of the inconveniences of infant care and stay calm and patient. Share the role of parenting. Hold, love, feed, and play with your baby and demonstrate your delight with the infant. Marvel at each developmental accomplishment and enthusiastically cherish all of the baby’s gains.
• With small children: Listen carefully and respond to their words, make time to be available to them in an uninterrupted way, accept their ways. Avoid excessive terminology such as; “You are the best …” or, you are a genius”. Praise appropriately: “you are a good ball player for your age”. Validate independence and accomplishments. Tell them you love them and are proud of them. Use their behaviors, such as helping a friend, as indicators of their character: “You helped your friend, which means that you are a kind and helpful person” This helps solidify their positive self-esteem.
• With adolescents: Be involved in their activities, school and personal endeavors. Talk to them; accept their views, even when you do not agree. Validate their feelings and put their conduct in the proper perspective, if needed. Disregard your own needs of emotional reciprocity with your teenagers at this stage of their lives- it will come later. Tell them you love them and are proud of the people they are becoming.
• With adult children: Stay interested and approve of their choices. If you don’t agree, ask how they made their decisions and support their process. Abstain from giving unsolicited advice. Praise their being and doing. Tell them you love them and support their choices.
• Be positive, affirming, loving and supportive of your children at any age. When they sense your love and validation, they will have a stronger sense of self-worth and will be empowered to lead healthier, more secure and satisfied lives.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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