Children need unconditional love. They need it from before their first breath and throughout their childhood, adolescence and beyond. They need to be brought up in an environment that accepts them completely and without restrictions or stipulations. Without unconditional love, fear can creep in and undermine their whole existence predicated on the fear of being rejected if the conditions are not met.
Children do not need to feel rejected . They need a secure base that nurtures and inspires them through childhood and beyond. Without that secure base, there will be attachment problems and an inability to explore the world around them, to stifle their development and hinder their ability to become independent. And the reason is simple, because rejection incites fear and fear, as we all knows, places limitations on what we can do, who we become, how we react etc. Children have a right not to be fearful, not to be rejected and not to be loved with conditions. It is therefore vital that children are cherished and supported. But sadly many children do not have these rights fulfilled and problems occur that stay with them far beyond their childhood and adolescent years.
In her book, Why Love Matters (2004), Sue Gerhardt, discusses this in some detail. Fear is the precursor of problems with children and can be affected by not only genetic tendency but also by environmental factors. A study of rats (Francis et. al. 1974) found that when baby rats who were predisposed to being more fearful were adopted by a non-fearful rat mother, they grew up without fear whereas those left with the biological mother remained fearful. Similarly the contrary applied whereby non-fearful baby rats that were subsequently placed with a fearful surrogate mother became more fearful. This indicated that their environment affected their outcome. Likewise it has been seen that babies that whinge and cry a lot develop insecure attachments to their carer and can grow up to be neurotic adults. But critically those same babies, if exposed to an environment of mothers responding better to their infants, grow up with secure attachments (Van den Bloom 1994). Sue Gerhardt explains that “emotional security then depends much more on the kind of care that babies receive and whether or not parents can rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of their more demanding babies”.
In “The Strange Situation” devised by Mary Ainsworth in late 1960’s as part of her studies into mother-child interaction in the first year of life, patterns in the response of children separated and then reunited with their mothers were identified. These have since been classified as secure attachment, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-disorganised. From ‘the strange situation’ further studies have shown that a secure attachment is vital for positive outcomes in children in terms of stress levels and prospects. Children who are insecurely attached run the risk of producing much higher cortisol levels under stress than those who are securely attached. Cortisol is the hormone that is released in stressful situations – some describe it as the biochemical of fear and the need for levels of cortisol to be regulated in the system is vital. So children who are separated from their prime carer in the early stages of life are at a higher risk of being unable to regulate their cortisol levels. Contrarily, research (Gunnar and Nelson 1994, Gunnar et al. 1996, Nachmias et al 1996, Essex et al 2002 cited in Gerhardt 2004) has also shown that children who are securely attached, even when they experience stress will not release high levels of cortisol.
This then identifies a key reason why unconditional love is central to good parenting. We have already associated conditional love with an increase in feelings of rejection and fear in children and demonstrated the correlation between attachment and cortisol levels. Children who are not assured of their carers’ availability grow up insecurely attached with the risk of releasing higher levels of cortisol under stress. Carers’ availability has to be unrestricted and without stipulations for survival. In evolutionary terms, babies are literally kept alive by the access to their carers to provide them with their basic needs. If this is compromised, they will become stressed and cortisol levels will rise. High cortisol can damage body systems from emotional dysfunctions to physical problems.
This then might show why love therefore too much be complete, unrestricted and without stipulations for surely if it is compromised and is not constant, always with conditions and therefore inciting fear of rejection and/or fear of availability of resources necessary to survive, the impact will be on the attachment of parent/carer to child. And as has been demonstrated a child who is securely attached will be confident, feel free to explore the world around them, exhibit higher levels of self-esteem and generally be able to move towards a healthier future and that is why children need unconditional love.
Gerhardt, S. (2004) Why Love Matters, Hove, Routledge
Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, Hove, Routledge
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base, Abingdon, Routledge