By Kathy Eugster, MA
Parents play many important roles in their children’s lives. Some examples are caregiver, protector, play partner, teacher, disciplinarian, and nurturer. When we are in our nurturer role, we provide unconditional love and affection to our children. We provide emotional warmth. We become empathic supporters of our children, striving to understand their inner worlds.
Part of being nurturing as a parent is being accepting of your child’s feelings, thoughts, experiences, and, at time, choices. This is called “parental acceptance” and it goes a long way towards healthy interactions between you and your child.
I am happy to give you some guidelines on how to interact in an “accepting” manner with your child. Many parents find this concept somewhat difficult to put into practice, because it basically goes against the guidelines given to many parents in supporting their children’s learning by guiding and teaching them. I find that the concept of parental acceptance is so important, however, that I would like to help parents learn more about it.
Acceptance is Not Agreement
Acceptance is not the same as agreement! Acceptance means understanding and acknowledgment of someone’s experience.
You can accept what your child is feeling, but not accept the behavior your child is showing or choices your child is making (“I can see you are feeling really angry, but you cannot hit.”).
You can accept your child’s point of view, but still maintain your rules and limits. (“Yes, I understand you don’t think it’s fair that we can’t go to the park now and your friends are going to the park, but you need to come with me now because I have some chores that need to be done.”).
It is important to distinguish between the responses, “Yes, I understand you,” and “Yes, I agree with you.”/ “Yes, you can do that.” Often there is confusion between them, but the meaning behind these responses is completely different. You can only respond to your child sometimes with the message, “Yes, I agree with you.”/”Yes, you can do that.” However, you can always respond to your child with the message, “Yes, I understand (or am trying to understand) you,” even though you do not agree.
What Are the Benefits of Parental Acceptance?
Why would you want to be accepting of your child’s feelings, choices, experiences, etc.? Here are just some of the benefits of parental acceptance.
- Being accepted by you allows your child to feel safe and secure. Your child will fee free to explore his or her world and express himself or herself to you without fear of your judgement or disapproval. This will encourage the development of healthy and assertive communication skills in your child. Your child will become more open with you and feel comfortable talking to you about many things. Conversations will be easier. Perspectives will be shared.
- Your relationship with your child will become stronger and closer. When you start to incorporate acceptance into your interactions with your child, he or she will perceive you as an interested, empathic supporter as opposed to a judgemental, demanding authority.
- With parental acceptance, you are modeling empathy for your child. Children need to experience empathy from someone else in order to develop their own empathy skills.
- Parental acceptance helps children with emotional regulation. By being accepting of your child’s strong feelings, the intensity of these feelings will decrease and your child will learn to manage them better.
The Difference Between A Child’s Inner Self and a Child’s Behavior
When you show acceptance of your child’s feelings and experiences, your child will develop a secure sense of self-identity and positive self-esteem. As a parent, you are a mirror to your child. If your child sees you as accepting and valuing of her, then she will be able to accept and value herself.
It is important to distinguish between a child’s inner sense of self as a person and a child’s behavior. Parents need to provide unconditional love and acceptance to a child’s self as a person (which includes a child’s feelings and thoughts), but do not need to accept all of a child’s behaviors.
When your child understands that you accept and value him or her as a person, including feelings and thoughts, and independent of behavior, he or she will internalize this acceptance and valuing, leading to a positive internal sense of self (positive self-esteem) with a core belief for your child that “I’m okay” rather than “I’m not okay.” This is so important for any child.
How Can You Provide “Parental Acceptance”?
By RESPONDING EMPATHICALLY to your child!
Watch your child’s facial expressions, body language, and actions. Listen to what your child says and to his or her voice tone. Provide your full attention to your child and try to enter your child’s world. It helps to detach yourself from you own feelings, thoughts, and opinions at this time.
Take some time to think what your child might be feeling, experiencing or thinking. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- “I wonder how he/she is feeling?” Strive to identify your child’s feelings (happy, excited, energetic, proud, bored, relaxed, curious, confident, determined, brave, sad, angry, frustrated, discouraged, worried, scared, confused, disappointed, surprised, hurt, tired, lonely, embarrassed, etc.).
- “What is he/she experiencing right now?” Notice what else your child might be experiencing, for example what does your child like, dislike, desire, wish, prefer, or not prefer. What is your child perceiving or sensing through his or her senses?
- “What is he/she thinking?” Try to understand what your child might be thinking. What might be his or her perspective or point of view? What might he or she be trying to tell you?
Respond with an EMPATHIC STATEMENT by acknowledging out loud what you are noticing in your child. Do this:
- without giving suggestions, guidance, advice, corrections, disapproval, or criticism,
- without asking questions,
- without minimizing or discounting your child’s experience, or
- without distracting your child from his or her experience.
The message sent to your child needs to be “Yes, I understand you, I notice what you are feeling and experiencing, I see what you are doing, I hear what you are saying.” It is important that your child understand that YOU understand, respect and accept his or her inner experiences.
Examples of how you could respond to your child using empathic statements:
- “I’m noticing you’re feeling happy that your found your favorite car.”
- “That’s frustrating for you.”
- “I can see you are feeling very proud of your painting!”
- “You really wish you could have all the blocks.”
- “I can see you don’t like it when those toys fall over.”
- “That looks very easy for you.”
- “It sounds like you want to play Candyland today.”
- “You’re angry with me because I said no.”
- “You look bored with that toy.”
- “You’re really disappointed that you didn’t get to play longer.”
- “That looks really hard for you, but you just keep working away at it.”
- “You like it when the pieces fit together!”
- “That really surprised you!”
- “I can see that you are feeling very confused right now.”
- “You really want to play with your cars instead of putting your sweater on.”
- “You would rather have two pieces.”
Hint: Notice that all the above empathic statements have the word “you” in them.
Accepting Your Child’s Choices
You can also provide parental acceptance to your child by accepting some of your child’s choices or decisions. On the one hand, parents are not able to accept every choice or decision that their children make! Children certainly need limits, rules and boundaries. On the other hand however, it is important for your child to have some of his or her choices accepted by you in order to develop a sense of independence and autonomy.
You may not agree with a particular choice your child is making, but as long as it is safe and non-destructive, you can choose to accept your child’s choice and allow your child to experience a feeling of control. This feeling of control is important for healthy child development and every child should have some opportunities to experience feeling in control from his or her choices being accepted.
The Difference Between Parental Acceptance and Parental Guidance
It is also important to be clear about the difference between “parental acceptance” and “parental guidance”. Both are important concepts for parents to understand.
Parental acceptance means you are watching and listening to your child and reflecting, acknowledging, and respecting what is felt and experienced by your child in a non-judgemental manner. With acceptance, your child gets the message that you are striving to understand and connect emotionally with him or her.
Parental guidance means you are providing ideas, suggestions, directions, instructions, information, explanations, limits, corrections, or cautions to your child or assisting your child in some way to learn a new behavior or skill, or to solve a problem. With guidance, your child gets the message that you are aiming to direct or support him or her.
What often gets in the way of parental acceptance is the need that parents often feel to teach their children appropriate behaviors or skills or to correct them in some manner. Instead of accepting your child’s feelings and choices, you may feel pressured to jump in quickly to change your child’s feelings or tell your child what to do. Of course, teaching, directing and guiding children are important roles in parenting, and should not be overlooked. But, we must be careful to balance teaching our children and correcting their behaviors with acceptance of our children’s feelings, experiences, and choices. Giving directions, corrections, suggestions, and advice can sometimes be overdone, with the result that children may start to doubt themselves and may internalize a belief that “I’m not okay” or “I’m okay only if I behave a certain way.”
Parental Acceptance in Play
One way to provide parental acceptance to your child is through parent-child play activities, especially through a play approach called child-directed play. Basically, when you play in a child-directed manner with your child, you will be:
- responding empathically to your child in ways that are accepting of your child’s feelings and experiences in the playtime
- accepting of many of your child’s choices and decisions within a safe play environment
Please see my Blog, 6 Key Concepts for Child-Directed Play with Your 3 to 10 year-old Child for some ideas on how to engage in this important way of playing with your child.
Here’s something for you to try:
- Look at the examples above of how you could provide parental acceptance by responding to your child using empathic statements and see how many you can use with your child over the next few weeks.
- Using the empathic statements provided above as a model, see if you can come up with more empathic statements that you could use to accept your child’s feelings and experiences.
Parental acceptance means the ability to acknowledge your child’s feelings and perceptions without trying to change them. It means listening to your child and refraining from giving advice or suggestions, disapproval or criticism. Parental acceptance means having respect for your child.
Parental acceptance has a significant influence on the healthy development of your child. You are sending the following very positive messages to your child:
- I AM INTERESTED IN AND NOTICING WHAT YOU ARE FEELING, THINKING, SAYING AND EXPERIENCING
- I RESPECT WHAT YOU ARE FEELING, THINKING, SAYING AND EXPERIENCING
A child receiving these messages from a parent has an incredible advantage in life, not only for early childhood development, but also far into the future for optimal functioning in adult life.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
This article has been revised from my earlier article published in 2007.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.
You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org