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Ask a Therapist: How Do I Practice Unconditional Acceptance When I Disagree With My Child’s Behavior or Life Choices?

“I love my child, and I keep hearing that I should give them unconditional acceptance. But how do I practice unconditional acceptance when I disagree with my child’s behavior or life choices?”

To answer this question and explore the topic of unconditional acceptance, we spoke with Embark Behavioral Health Chief Clinical Officer Rob Gent. 

What Is Unconditional Acceptance?

Unconditional acceptance is objectively experiencing another person as inherently valuable. No matter what they do, no matter what behaviors they engage in, no matter what choices they make, they’re inherently valuable. Some parents mix up unconditional acceptance with unconditional agreement, but those are two separate practices. To understand unconditional acceptance, think about a tiny newborn baby. You unconditionally accept that baby. There’s nothing that baby could do or not do to change how you feel about them.

Why Don’t All Parents Practice Unconditional Acceptance?

What usually gets in the way of unconditional acceptance are the parents’ inaccurate expectations of their children. They might be very loving expectations for the child for wonderful things, but do they match up with what the child is objectively capable of doing? When the expectation and a child’s ability to achieve that expectation don’t match up, it can be hard for parents to maintain unconditional acceptance.

A real-life example is that we can have a very loving expectation that we want our child to go to college, or we want them to find a spouse and have children, and those are very loving expectations. But let’s say the objective evidence of our child is they’re not equipped for higher education. Being in a romantic relationship that’s stable and predictable is too hard for them. We have to grieve that loss of “Gosh, they’re not capable of this. I have to change my expectation.” There’s a lot of grief in changing expectations and our children not accomplishing what we think is best for them.

How Do Parents Balance Practicing Unconditional Acceptance With Setting Boundaries?

As a caregiver and as a parent, you’re always committed to doing what’s developmentally best for your child, and inherent in that is maintaining predictable, reliable boundaries that are rooted in emotional and physical safety. So, if I unconditionally accept you, I’m actually in a better place to follow through with those boundaries because I know what you need. It’s when we move out of unconditional acceptance and load up the relationship with inaccurate expectations that we compromise on boundaries. We might have rules and guidelines and “nice to haves” that are not reliable, predictable boundaries.

Let’s use the cellphone as an example. Kids are going to make bad choices with it, like sending inappropriate messages or using it late at night. So, a boundary would be that we as parents won’t support anything that is emotionally or physically unsafe, so this might mean as the parent, you stop paying for the phone if that behavior occurs.

The child might say that boundary is unfair, but you’re doing what’s emotionally and physically developmentally best for them. You let them know, “If the cellphone becomes emotionally and physically unsafe, I’m going to adhere to the boundary and limit — as best as I can — your access to the phone. I’m not going to condone that behavior in any sort of way.”

If the child doesn’t manage the cellphone appropriately and does things that are unsafe, instead of being hurt or angry or frustrated, the parent needs to take a step back into unconditional acceptance and objectively view the child, asking themselves questions like, “Is properly managing the cellphone emotionally too difficult? Are they longing for some sort of internal validation? Is there something going on with them that’s emotionally driving this behavior?”

So instead of being in a place of frustration, unconditional acceptance allows you to make more objective, healthier decisions rather than being resentful that the expectation wasn’t met.

What if a Parent Disagrees With Their Son or Daughter’s Behavior or Life Choices?

I go back to what I said before, that acceptance is not agreement. They might make choices that we don’t agree with or that might not be in their best interest or might not be best for their long-term well-being. You don’t stop unconditionally loving them or unconditionally accepting them. You take a step back and look at the situation more objectively. “Huh. I wonder why they’re making these choices? What’s going on for them that’s compelling some of these behaviors?” That helps the parent to do what’s reliable, predictable, and safe — emotionally and physically safe. So, if that choice doesn’t turn out well, the child always has a safe place to return.

If a Child Is Raised in an Environment of Unconditional Acceptance, Do They Have More Trouble Adjusting To Rejection in Life?

Through unconditional acceptance, your child will experience that you’re a secure base. They know they can push and challenge and that relationships can be broken and repaired. That experience of unconditional acceptance and knowing that you’ll do what’s developmentally best for them is the best way for them to develop a sense of self-worth. So actually, they’re more capable of appropriately handling rejection than if they weren’t raised in an unconditionally accepting home.

What Would You Say To a Parent Who’s Struggling To Practice Unconditional Acceptance?

I would say let’s rewind and objectively view where is your child at? Where are they at developmentally, emotionally, relationally? What have they demonstrated that they’re capable of in the here and now? And then look at time and evidence. If we have enough time and evidence, that will help us assess what they’re capable of. That’s the way I want to always help parents form accurate expectations. Accurate expectations are based in time, evidence, and trust.

It’s on you, caregiver. If your expectations are constantly not being met, don’t be resentful. You need to change your perspective. But that’s unconditional acceptance, right? You don’t hold a grudge. You just get to a place of, “I’m going to love you and see you as inherently valuable. I have to. I can’t hold on to this unmet expectation.”

The Value of Unconditional Acceptance Now and in the Future

While it can be difficult to practice unconditional acceptance when your child is acting out or making choices you disagree with, it can be highly beneficial. By showing your child unconditional love, you’ll help your son or daughter better see their self-worth. This can make a lasting impact on them as they head into and navigate adulthood. You’ll also strengthen your bond with your son or daughter.

“Practicing unconditional acceptance helps parents build secure, loving relationships with their children, which ultimately helps promote strong, healthy families and good mental health,” Gent said.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.