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Unconditional Regard

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One view widely shared by child care specialists in Japan is that Japanese children have low self-esteem compared with children in other countries. I myself have doubts about this, and recently came upon an article about "unconditional regard" in a recent issue of the American Academy of Pediatrics: Pediatrics. I was drawn to the title that seemed to have little relation to pediatrics among all the other articles that were concerned with illness and disability, and it turned out to be very interesting research on the subject of children's self-esteem, so let me share it with you here.

The study was conducted on children from ages 11 to 15 by researchers in the Netherlands. The method was as follows. Three weeks before receiving their grades, the participants were divided into three groups. The first group was told to think of peers "who always accept and value you, no matter how you behave or how good you are at something, and still accepts and value you even if you make a mistake" and to write about a relevant experience. The second group was asked to write about peers "who accept and value you, but only if you do or say the kind of things these peers like, approve of, or look up to, and valued you less when you made a mistake." The third group was asked to write about "anyone who was present when you made a mistake." Three weeks after this reflection and writing exercise, the participants received their first report card of the school year. There was no difference between the three groups in the percentage of students whose grades had improved and those whose grades had fallen. After receiving their report cards, all the students who participated in the research took a psychological test on negative self-feelings. In all groups, students whose grades had improved experienced reduced negative self-feelings, and this result showed no difference by group. However, as expected, children in the second and third group whose grades had fallen experienced increased negative self-feelings while no significant increase in negative self-feelings was seen in the first group.

Writing and reflecting on their experience of unconditional regard by someone was a psychological exercise that had the effect of mitigating negative self-evaluation, even three weeks later. The act of recalling the experience of unconditional regard alone was sufficient to produce this effect, and thus the actual experience of unconditional regard can be expected to produce even greater results.

This significant research established that it is possible to increase children's resistance to stress just by unconditional regard, that is, the presence of someone who accepts the child unconditionally and at all times regardless of conduct.

Reading this article, I recalled the case of T, a girl who repeatedly had trouble in kindergarten due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but later overcame her disability and became a successful adult. She told me at one lecture that whenever she felt life was hard, she would remember what her art teacher had said to her in kindergarten: "T, you are really so good at this!" and this gave her the energy and confidence to overcome a difficult situation. It is truly moving to think that one simple phrase of encouragement could be so effective more than 50 years later.

In its research in the United States, the National Institute of Child Health and Development has conducted follow-up surveys on the long-term effects of the developmental environment in childhood and found that expressing positive caregiving toward the child together with the sensitivity of caregivers, has a beneficial influence on child development.

It is relatively easy to praise children when they have made a good grade or show self-discipline, but we tend to admonish or scold them when they make a bad grade or don't do what we expect. Scolding and encouraging might be seen as two sides of the same coin, and often the act of scolding is said to be for the "the child's good." However, as this study clearly indicates, unconditional regard is the optimal means of nurturing resistance to stress in children.

Unconditional Regard Buffers Children's Negative Self-Feelings Pediatrics Volume 134, 1119-1126, 2014

Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Vice President, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before assuming current post.