Loving With Clenched Teeth

June 14, 2012

A guest post by Jay Morgan from Conscious Parenting

Children need to consistently feel a parent’s love. When a child is pleasant and cooperative, showing love is easy and natural. But what about when a child is misbehaving and uncooperative? What do parents do then?

After graduate school, I wanted to be a Rogerian therapist. Carl Rogers was an innovator in the newly developing field of psychology. Rogers believed a therapist should always have unconditional positive regard for the client. He also believed therapy should be client-centered and nondirective. He thought the client, not the therapist, should choose the issues to be worked on in session. Rogers believed that being client-centered, nondirective and showing unconditional positive regard was the best way to help patients with individual exploration, change, and personal growth.

That was exactly how I wanted to help children and teens: with nondirective, kid-centered therapy and plenty of unconditional positive regard, which in my mind was a fancy term for unconditional love. I believed this had to be the recipe for therapeutic success. I couldn’t wait to implement my approach, sit back and watch the patients experience a complete turn-around.

But apparently nobody told the kids on the unit how they were supposed to respond. My client-centered, nondirective approach and attempts at showing unconditional love seemed to be having the opposite effect of what I wanted. I was nice, but the patients were mean. I was caring, but they didn’t seem to care. I let the children decide what they wanted to work on, but they seemed intent on working to drive me crazy. Children called me names, attacked me, spit on me, and were openly defiant. I began to have doubts, not only about Rogerian therapy, but also about my career path.

But I decided to stay the course. “I just have to be nicer,” I reasoned. “That’s what they need.” I continued trying, but unfortunately I continued failing. I also wasn’t feeling so good. Unconditional positive regard was wearing me out. I felt tense and stressed, and was more irritable at home. Sometimes, I felt like I was going to snap.

Finally, I spoke to my supervisor. He listened intently and paused a moment before replying. He then looked at me and said, “You’re not giving the patients accurate feedback when they are misbehaving.” He also told me I was not being honest with my feelings. “You’re trying to be loving and caring with clenched teeth,” he said. “That’s not therapeutic for you or the patients. The kids on the unit need somebody to be honest with them. They need to know how their negative behavior makes you feel, but in a way that says you still care and you still want to help. That’s what’s really therapeutic.”

That information set me on a different course. I was still nice, but when the children messed up, I told them so. I consulted my emotions and honestly told them how their behavior made me feel. The children didn’t always seem to appreciate my feedback, but they did seem to have more respect for me. This approach was much more helpful than the forced and strained version of unconditional positive regard I had first tried. In the final analysis, I still had positive regard for the children, but honest, constructive, carefully worded feedback became an important way I tried to show it.

This was some work I was happy to bring home. As a parent, I now realize I can’t force love. I can’t credibly show love “through clinched teeth.” Any child will see through that. Instead, I have to let my love flow out through my loving words and conscious actions.

But when I’m upset or angry, I can’t afford to let those kinds of feelings flow. I have to stop, deliberate, consult my feelings and carefully let my child know how her behavior made me feel. This is best accomplished through a simple statement that identifies a child’s behavior choice and a corresponding feeling on the parent’s part. For example, I might say, “Hannah, when you ignored me when I asked you to pick up your toys, I felt angry and disappointed.” With these kinds of statements, children begin to learn there is a connection between their behavior choices and the feelings that are evoked in other people. Over time, these statements build empathy and sensitivity, two critical skills any child will need to maintain happy and healthy relationships.


Thanks to Jay for this inspiring post!! Find out more about Jay’s work and his book, Finger Painting in Psyche Class by visiting his Facebook pages:

Finger Painting in Psych Class
Conscious Parenting




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