More than six decades ago, Carl Rogers suggested that loving our children is not enough. We have to love them unconditionally. Love them for who they are, not for what they do. For this psychologist, only that unconditional love can create those positive relational experiences that allow us to value ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness, even when we make mistakes.
Therefore, between parents and children there should be a kind of implicit contract of unconditional love whose main clause is that they cannot subordinate their love and support to what the children do.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that parents should allow or justify bad behavior – a permissive parenting style will also end up affecting child development – but they also shouldn’t withdraw their love when the child makes a mistake or does something that bothers or displeases them. In that case, they would be applying conditional love.
The 3 basic needs that parents must satisfy
The relationships we establish in childhood, particularly with our parents, leave a deep mark. In order to fully develop our potential and enjoy good mental health, it is essential that we satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and bonding.
Autonomy implies feeling that we freely choose our behaviors. Competence refers to the feeling that we are capable of achieving what we set out to do, and bonding involves feeling deeply connected to and unconditionally accepted by the significant people in our lives. These are the three pillars of psychological well-being.
Unconditional love is the vehicle through which parents satisfy these basic needs during the first years of their children’s lives. Affection not only unites them, but also gives them the security and support they need to dare to walk on their own feet. For this reason, it is the seed from which healthy self-esteem flourishes.
On the other hand, conditional love undermines those pillars.
I love you, but… only if you’re good
Conditional love is that which is provided only when the child complies with the rules imposed by the parents; That is, it is an affection subject to good behavior. When the child ignores these rules, the parents withdraw their affection from him.
In fact, it is a fairly widespread psychological control tactic that leverages shame and guilt by withdrawing attention and affection to manipulate the behavior of children. Conditional love translates into: “I love you, but only if you are good and do what I say.”
Conditional love conveys to children the idea that they are only worthy and deserving of affection and attention when they behave as others want. It teaches them that something is wrong with their true self. Therefore, they learn that they cannot be themselves, which ends up affecting their self-esteem and their ability to create and maintain healthy social relationships.
It is no coincidence that a study carried out at the University of Bielefeld with more than 500 adolescents revealed that those whose parents conditioned their love had a very vulnerable self-esteem, were not capable of treating each other with kindness, were too self-critical, were very insecure and had a lower satisfaction with life.
That “I love you if…” ends up translating into “I love myself if…”, so these people also end up valuing themselves for what they do and the achievements they achieve. They introject that conditional love from their parents and are not capable of loving themselves unconditionally.
In fact, it is not unusual for them to come to disown or deny the parts of themselves that differ from those their parents value, so they also try to manipulate their public image and often end up displaying false or inauthentic behaviors in an attempt to please the others and get their approval.
Ultimately, we must keep in mind that these people have grown up under the shadow of rejection, thinking that they can be emotionally abandoned at any moment. Therefore, it is not strange that their behaviors in adult life end up reflecting these beliefs.
Another research carried out at the Université du Québec à Montréal revealed that conditional love also affects academic performance, especially when parental affection depends precisely on good grades, so that pressure ends up being counterproductive.
The truth is that parents’ psychological control practices undermine their children’s intrinsic motivation and hinder their autonomy, hindering their perception of competence, which generates fear of failure and a large dose of anxiety that these children can drag into their adult lives.
The vicious circle of conditional love
Many adults who have grown up with conditional love continue to believe that they have inherent defects and do not deserve affection or support because of those imperfections. In fact, they often find it difficult to believe that they deserve to be happy or that the others love them simply for who they are, unless they bring something to the relationship beyond themselves – be it money, status, professional achievements, a stunning physique…
These people continue trying to compensate for the emotional needs that were unsatisfied in their childhood, so they unconsciously look for unconditional acceptance in their friends, partners or co-workers.
They often desperately seek the approval of others so they can “prove” that someone loves them. The problem is that in many cases this search for acceptance can end up generating dysfunctional relational patterns in which an emotional dependency on the other is created, which becomes the source of support, security and love that the person lacks.
There is no doubt that the love, protection and support of parents are essential for the emotional development of their children. Without these experiences, those who only received conditional love can spend their entire lives trying to compensate for this accumulation of unsatisfied emotional needs, feeling that they are not enough.
However, it is important to keep in mind that no relationship will give you peace that you are not able to create within yourself and will not give you happiness that you do not build yourself. Therefore, the first step is to love yourself unconditionally, for the person you are, not for the success you have achieved or can achieve.
Brueckmann, M. et. Al. (2023) What if parental love is conditional…? Children’s self-esteem profiles and their relationship with parental conditional regard and self-kindness. BMC Psychology; 11: 322.
Bouffard, T. et. Al. (2023) Developmental trajectories of conditional parental regard and long-term association with students’ academic functioning. Front. Educ.; 8: 10.3389.
Haines, J. E. & Schutte, N. S. (2023) Parental conditional regard: A meta-analysis. Journal of Adolescence; 95(2): 195-223.