“Look. Look. Let me show you how I jump! Look. Look!,” screams the child at their parent. The parent obligingly looks at the child for the millionth time, making an effort to show interest yet again and to congratulate the child and to encourage them to go ahead and do it once again. The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do children need to show their parents everything that they are doing? Why do they need constant approval from their caregivers?
It is important to remember, that no matter the age of the child even when they reach adolescent and adult years, their parents’ approval remains important and it is always valued. All children wish to shine in their parents’ eyes.
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Children look up to their Parents
Children crave for their parents’ positive rating of their behaviour or performance. When a parent disapproves, it means the child will receive a negative rating. This rating will vary according to the behaviour being demonstrated and depending on the parents’ subjective view of that behaviour.
This behaviour of seeking constant approval may look like a small and innocent act from the child’s side but can feel equally tiring for the parent. But we can never underestimate how much it means for the child to show what they have learnt and to also watch their parents’ reaction to their request.
As children develop self-awareness, they crave to gain attention, praise and approval of those who matter most to them. They also love getting the small rewards in the form of a “wow” or a “well done”!
The child needs to feel validated by the important people in their life; they also want to feel that what they do matters to their loved ones. They are still learning new things, so little things mean a lot to them and they want to share their discovery or the result.
Parents offer Regulation and Challenges to the Child
The parental approval or disapproval of the child’s behaviours and of the stream of little successes, serves as a way of regulation for the child. They learn what to stop doing and what to try out again. The parental feedback can also serve as a challenge for the child to try new things in order to gain the next “well done” or “try some more”. Steady feedback helps the child to continue growing on the right path towards more self-confident and independent human beings.
So it is very normal for children, from toddler age onwards to seek approval for their actions, which may seem small in our eyes but they are big steps for them. They usually require a good amount of and continuous attention while they are doing something. Doing just about anything takes on a different meaning for them when they have an audience. It could be when they are looking at a flower, pulling a cart or building blocks.
The child’s emotional needs at a very young age almost push them to seek the approval and praise for even the smallest of actions. In case the adult cannot see to that need in a reasonable amount of time, which could be just seconds, there may be a natural outburst in the form of tantrums, anger or even self harm. If this reaction takes place on a regular basis, parents’ may want to put their minds at rest by consulting a therapist for kids.
Training for Life on how to seek Attention
In the fast-paced world that we live in, it may be a huge challenge to give a lot of attention to the child over a long period of time. The amount of attention that the caregivers provide will serve as foundation blocks for the child’s self confidence as they grow up and go on into adulthood. Their parents’ assurances serve to put their minds at rest that they are fine, safe and doing well. As their needs are met through reassurance and encouragement, the child will grow to rely more on their own self-belief, without the need to constantly seek reassurance, or in extreme cases to engage in self-harming approval seeking tactics.
How is Approval different from Love?
Approval is not the same as love. How is this so? Approval varies according the child’s behaviour and parental approval. Approval is gained and rewarded. Love, however, is a constant that never varies. It does not have to be earned. The parent or caregiver will love the child inspite of their behaviour. “I may not always like what you do, but I will always love you the way you are.” Approval depends upon performance, love is given unconditionally.
Parents and caregivers are the major source of love in a child’s or an adolescent’s life. In an ideal world, their love should not be conditional, awarded or withheld on the basis of a child’s performance. “If you love me, you should do well in school” is one example of love being conditional upon a child’s performance. Instead, a parent can focus on the benefits of gaining good results in school. “When you work hard and study for your exams, you will get good results and we will be able to do something fun together”.
Meanwhile, while parents love their children unconditionally, they will need to show disapproval for certain behaviours and will need to call out performances that need to be worked upon. To minimise the damage that disapproval causes to the individual child’s ego, a parent can focus their feedback on the behaviour itself rather than criticise or attack the child. Instead of “That was such a stupid thing to do! You’re a disappointment.” Parents do well to focus on the action itself “We disagree with the choices you made and these are the reasons why.”
As the child grows into the teenage years, they may act as if they do not care about their parents’ approval, but as mentioned at the beginning, this is an important element at every phase of our lives. The teenager may want to look cool and as if they do not need their parents’ guidance anymore. Here the parents or caregivers will do well to adopt a language which is non-critical, is non-sarcastic and does not attack their child. In giving feedback about the child’s behaviour, the caregivers will stand to benefit more when their approach is non-demeaning or destructive. “You have disappointed us” directly attacks the adolescent’s self-esteem. It should be replaced with “We disapprove of the way you behaved there and here is why.”
Approval and Love as part of our Life-long Journey
Children need their parents to boost them and not to put them down. They have enough challenges to face in the outside world and they wouldn’t need more attacks on top of all that. The constant challenge for parents is to separate their approval or disapproval of behaviours from love. Accept the child as an individual. Often express appreciation for the all the good things they do and that they have to offer. This will be a big contribution towards the child building a healthy self-esteem that will help them to effectively face the growing challenges as they themselves grow into adulthood.
Writer for Therapy Hunter as well as psychology
professor at Malta University.