Unconditional regard refers to the feeling that one is accepted and valued by others without conditions. Psychological theory suggests that experiences of unconditional regard lead children to feel that they are valuable despite setbacks. We hypothesized that reflecting on experiences of unconditional regard would buffer children’s negative self-feelings (eg, shame, insecurity, powerlessness) in the face of setbacks. To test this hypothesis, we randomized children to reflect on experiences of unconditional regard or other experiences, and examined their response to an academic setback 3 weeks later.
Participants (11–15 years old) were randomly assigned to reflect for 15 minutes on experiences of unconditional regard (n = 91), conditional regard (n = 80), or other social experiences (n = 76). Research personnel, teachers, and classmates remained blind to condition assignment. Three weeks later, after receiving their course grades, children reported their self-feelings. Course grades were obtained from school records. Receiving low course grades represents a salient and painful real-world setback for children.
Replicating previous research, children who received lower grades experienced more negative self-feelings (P < .001). As predicted, this well-established relationship was significantly attenuated among children who had reflected, 3 weeks previously, on experiences of unconditional regard (Ps < .03). Reflecting on unconditional regard specifically reduced negative self-feelings after low grades (P = .01), not after average or high grades (Ps > .17).
Reflecting on unconditional regard buffered children’s selves against the adverse impact of an academic setback over an extended period of time. Unconditional regard may thus be an important psychological lever to reduce negative self-feelings in youth.