The language of acceptance opens kids up. It frees them to share their feelings and problems. Professional therapists and counselors have shown just how powerful such acceptance can be. Those therapists and counselors who are most effective are the ones who can convey to the people who come to them for help that they are truly accepted.
This is why one often hears people say that in counseling or therapy they felt totally free of the counselor’s judgment. They report that they experienced a freedom to tell him the worst about themselves—they felt their counselor would accept them no matter what they said or felt. Such acceptance is one of the most important elements contributing to the growth and change that takes place in people through counseling and therapy.
Conversely, we also have learned from these professional change agents that unacceptance too often closes people up, makes them feel defensive, produces discomfort, makes them afraid to talk or to take a look at themselves.
Thus, part of the “secret of success” of the professional therapist’s ability to foster change and growth in troubled people is the absence of unacceptance in his relationship with them and his ability to talk the language of acceptance so it is genuinely felt by the other.
In working with parents in our Parent Effectiveness Training course, we have demonstrated that parents can be taught these same skills used by professional counselors. Most of these parents drastically reduce the frequency of messages that convey unacceptance and acquire a surprisingly high level of skill in employing the language of acceptance.
When parents learn how to demonstrate through their words an inner feeling of acceptance toward a child, they are in possession of a tool that can produce some startling effects.
They can be influential in his learning to accept and like himself and to acquire a sense of his own worth. They can greatly facilitate his developing and actualizing the potential with which he was genetically endowed.
They can accelerate his movement away from dependence and toward independence and self-direction. They can help him learn to solve for himself the problems that life inevitably brings, and they can give him the strength to deal constructively with the usual disappointments and pain of childhood and adolescence.
Of all the effects of acceptance none is as important as the inner feeling of the child that he is loved.
For to accept another “as he is” is truly an act of love; to feel accepted is to feel loved.
And in psychology, we have only begun to realize the tremendous power of feeling loved: It can promote the growth of mind and body, and is probably the most effective therapeutic force we know for repairing both psychological and physical damage.
It is one thing for a parent to feel acceptance toward a child; it is another thing to make that acceptance felt. Unless a parent’s acceptance comes through to the child, it can have no influence on him. A parent must learn how to demonstrate his acceptance so that the child feels it.
Specific skills are required to be able to do this. Most parents, however, tend to think of acceptance as a passive thing—a state of mind, an attitude, a feeling. True, acceptance does originate from within, but to be an effective force in influencing another, it must be actively communicated or demonstrated. I can never be certain that I am accepted by another until he demonstrates it in some active way.
The professional psychological counselor or psychotherapist, whose effectiveness as a helping agent is so greatly dependent on his being able to demonstrate his acceptance of the client, spends years learning ways to implement this attitude through his own habits of communication. Through formal training and long experience, professional counselors acquire specific skills in communicating acceptance. They learn that what they say makes the difference between their being helpful or not.
Talk can cure, and talk can foster constructive change. But it must be the right kind of talk.
The same is true for parents. How they talk to their children will determine whether they will be helpful or destructive. The effective parent, like the effective counselor, must learn how to communicate his acceptance and acquire the same communication skills.
Parents in our classes skeptically ask, “Is it possible for a nonprofessional like myself to learn the skills of a professional counselor?” [Sixty] years ago we would have said, “No.” However, in our classes we have demonstrated that it is possible for most parents to learn how to become effective helping agents for their children. We know now that it is not knowledge of psychology or an intellectual understanding about people that makes a good counselor. It is primarily a matter of learning how to talk to people in a “constructive” way.
Psychologists call this “therapeutic communication,” meaning that certain kinds of messages have a “therapeutic” or healthy effect on people. They make them feel better, encourage them to talk, help them express their feelings, foster a feeling of worth or self-esteem, reduce threat or fear, facilitate growth and constructive change.
Other kinds of talk are “nontherapeutic” or destructive. These messages tend to make people feel judged or guilty; they restrict expression of honest feelings, threaten the person, foster feelings of unworthiness or low self-esteem, block growth and constructive change by making the person defend more strongly the way he is.
While a very small number of parents possess this therapeutic skill intuitively and hence are “naturals,” most parents have to go through a process of first unlearning their destructive ways of communicating and then learning more constructive ways. This means that parents first have to expose their typical habits of communication to see for themselves how their talk is destructive or nontherapeutic. Then they need to be taught some new ways of responding to children.