The teenage quest for parental acceptance and the unconditional love dilemma

By Jennifer Breheny Wallace

The legendary social psychologist Morris Rosenberg first conceptualized the idea of mattering in the 1980s while studying self-esteem among adolescents. Critical to the well-being of these high school students, Rosenberg found, was feeling valued: those who felt they mattered to their parents enjoyed higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than peers who felt they mattered less. When you feel like you matter, you are secure in the knowledge that you have strong, meaningful connections and that you are not going through this life alone, explained Gordon Flett, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher on perfectionism and mattering.

In my research, I have found that it’s not enough to love our kids unconditionally, as we do. To matter, our kids must also feel that the love is unconditional. That feeling is formed not by what we say but by what our kids hear—and they are natural prodigies at translating our doublespeak, like when we say that grades aren’t everything but then ask how the test went the minute they walk in the door.

“Many parents perceive their children feel that they matter when in fact their children don’t feel that way or they are not sure whether they matter,” Flett told me. He spoke of one school board survey showing that only 8 percent of parents believed their children felt that they didn’t matter, when, in fact, 30 percent of the students reported feeling that way. You may think your own children know just how much they matter to you, but my student survey tells another story:

Astoundingly, more than 70 percent of the young adults I surveyed reported that they thought their parents “valued and appreciated” them more when they were successful in work and school.

More than 50 percent went so far as to say they thought their parents loved them more when they were more successful, with 25 percent of students saying they believed this “a lot,” the highest degree the survey al- lowed.

When I asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement “I feel like I matter for who I am at my core, not by what I achieve,” a surprising 25 percent of students agreed either “a little” or “not at all.”

In other words, one in four of the students in my survey believed that achievement, not who they are as people, is what is most important to their parents. When a friend of mine asked her son if he ever thought he was more loved or liked when he did well academically, he told her, “Well, everyone’s mood does seem better when I bring home an A.”

My survey also asked students, “What is one thing that you wish adults in your life knew about the pressure you feel/felt in high school?” As a parent, the responses were hard to read:

I wish they would have understood that grades are not everything. Their pressure to be an overachiever was the catalyst for my depression and anxiety issues.

It felt like my worth was tied to my grades.

I wish my parents knew that it’s okay for me to get less than perfect grades sometimes. It’s okay not to be exceptional in everything.

One student wrote that they wished their parents understood how the pressure they exerted was “more mentally abusive” than “helpful.” Others described more subtle forms of criticism: “My mom would compare me to my friends—and my friend’s parents would compare them to me—and that kind of comparison was really damaging to my mental health and the way I viewed myself.” When you criticize a child, they don’t necessarily stop loving you, psychologists say; they stop loving themselves.

We all know the stereotypes: the critical or withholding mom, the overinvolved sports dad. Most of us know that such behavior is destructive, and we consciously try to avoid it. Still, it’s natural to get swept up in feelings of pride when our kids shine and to button our lips when bad news hits to avoid piling on. But these reactions can send subtle messages, and they can make a big impression. One New York City student poignantly decoded them for me. “I know that when my report card comes and my parents take a few days to talk to me about it that they’re not pleased,” he said. “They think they’re being helpful by not being critical, but their silence hurts just as much.”

As he spoke, I felt my cheeks blush, knowing that I’d probably done similar things to my own kids without realizing it. I had celebrated their wins but kept quiet when they bombed a test. I was disappointed for them, not in them—but how could they know that? Nothing could make me love my children more or less. But did my kids understand it that way? Seeing it from this student’s perspective made me want to run home and set the record straight.

The difference between what we say and what our children hear is magnified in the teen years. Like all of us, teens come wired with a negativity bias. Simply put, adverse events elicit a stronger neurological response than positive ones. Criticism, research suggests, has a much greater impact on us than positive feedback does. Moreover, psychologists have shown that teenage negativity overperforms that of other age groups, making teens hypersensitive to threats in their environment, even imagined ones. This bias also means that the subtle messages our kids receive regarding achievement—a raised eyebrow, a question about how a test went—can come across as excessive pressure. Perceived parental criticism, which a parent may subtly wield in an effort to mold and control a child’s behavior, is linked to poor mental health outcomes.

Feeling controlled and routinely criticized can make an adolescent feel less accepted by a parent, which weakens their relationship. When that relationship feels weak, a child can in turn feel like they matter less. The consequences of associating love with achievement can last far beyond childhood. It can set our children up for a lifelong pattern of accepting themselves only with strings attached: I’ll be worthy when I get straight As, lose ten pounds, get 100K followers.

In a world that already values achievement, our kids don’t need the adults in their lives to push for their excellence. What they need to hear is the opposite: that their worth is absolute and their value to us never fluctuates.

Excerpted from Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jennifer Breheny Wallace, 2023.

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