Two Keys to Character Development

Raising children to be mature, responsible adults is among life’s most challenging enterprises. And years of research and clinical experience has shown that for kids to develop both strength and integrity of character, two factors are of key importance: affection and approval.  The manner in which children experience these two things during their upbringing can have a deep and lasting impact not only on their moral development but also on how well-adjusted and sucessful they’re likely to be in life.

Mental health professionals have long known that the most successful and well-adjusted adults come from homes in which love was experienced both liberally and unconditionally whereas parental approval was bestowed quite conditionally.  And when it comes to that conditional approval, it’s important that it’s specifically linked to behavior. Basically, a child has to get these messages loudly and clearly from their caretakers: “I love you thoroughly and no matter what, but when it comes to what you do, some things are simply not okay.”

Some recent studies have called into question the wisdom of what has been long called “conditional parenting.” But when these studies are carefully scrutinized, it appears they largely define parental “approval” as “displays of affection” (i.e., a parent showing pleasure or displeasure with their children through the open demonstration of emotional fondness).  Because of this error, the conclusions of these studies have been at variance with not only the mounds of prior research but also with my years of experience as a therapist

Now, it’s true that some parents who truly love their children have used the giving or withholding of affection as way of motivating their children to please. And this is a problem because children who learn that they will “feel the love” of their caretakers only if they meet and heed certain expectations might very well strive to please, but they also learn that compliance comes with a steep emotional price that can be quite damaging to the spirit.

I’ve specialized in the treatment of personality and character disturbance for most of my professional life, and early in my career, many of my clients were troubled children and adolescents. I learned relatively quickly that kids do best in their formative years when they know not only that they are truly, deeply, and unconditionally loved but also that when it comes to their behavior (and even their thinking patterns and attitudes), not just anything goes. Chidren trying to develop their own moral compass have to know that their parents hold certain values and principles and that those principles are worth both defending and emulating. It also helps a lot if parents don’t merely “preach” or try to impose principles but rather “model” their own faithful adherence to them. Children are motivated to be their best when they are well-bonded to those guiding them and get the clear message that to earn the approval and respect they naturally seek, they need to exhibit behavior consistent with the values promoted by those they love and trust.

When I was collecting clinical data for my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I encountered far too many children who did not feel fully and unconditionally loved.  Some of these children knew in their guts that they were either unwanted in some way or considered too much of a burden to be fully and eagerly embraced. And this deep sense of rejection was at the bottom of a lot of their anger, depression, and despair. It also fueled a host of behavioral problems. I also witnessed many parents who, while they truly loved their children, used the giving or withholding of affection as way of getting their children to do things.  This form of emotional manipulation only teaches a child that strings are always attached to gestures of love and that failure to meet expectations generally comes with steep, sometimes unbearable emotional price tag.  Sadly, I saw too many instances where this kind of manipulation left lasting scars.  But I also was struck by how often a youngster was positively motivated by the approval of someone whose character they could truly admire. Whether we adults are aware of or appreciate the fact, young folks are always appraising us for our values and the nature of our allegiance to them. And, with the exception of those rare individuals who innately lack the capacity to do so, they’ll bond to us when they know in the deepest recesses of their soul that we love them fully and unconditionally. They’ll also aspire to be persons of integrity when they know how much our values really matter.

I think one of the things that drew me early on to the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) paradigm is that it afforded me as a therapist the ability to display the kind of appropriate unconditional regard for a human being so necessary to forming a trusting therapeutic bond while simultaneously providing me with the tools to both call out and make a value statment about the thinking patterns, attitudes, and most especially, behaviors that are so often destructive to a healthy relationship (for more on this topic see the many articles on CBT including: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and The Mechanics of Genuine CBT).  It also gave me a chance to model and promote the core values my experience has taught me are essential to sound character formation (for more on this see the 10 Commandments of Character Development section of Character Disturbance and the series of articles on this blog on the same topic), as well as an opportunity to reinforce a person’s genuine efforts to adopt and live by those values. Just as the research has shown so convincingly what promotes sound character development in our children, the research on CBT has consistently attested to the value of coupling unconditional regard with conditional endorsement of behavior in adults seeking to become better persons.

Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT (4PM PDT), so I can take your phone calls.

14 thoughts on “Two Keys to Character Development

  1. My (Timothy’s) concerns on some self-reinforcing cycles reposted and updated

    Dr Simon, Suzi, Susie Q, Andy D, Joey, Tundra Woman & co.

    There are so many different kinds of vicious cycles. I feel like I can spot them more, because I must’ve gotten accustomed to seeing those(perhaps even where they may not be to such degree?).

    It’s sad that many people live under such threats of being destroyed when they are slowly being destroyed anyway or might well be. Walking on eggshells can’t be good for anyone. And I think of George Orwell and 1984 again.

    Susie Q, thanks for pointing this out extra-clearly. ” just because a person does nice things for you once in a while but is mean to you many more times than they are mean. I told him that they are just trying to confuse you.”

    Among other things, Susie Q, I’m sorry your mother is like she is, that relative man being is he is and your cousin chooses not look where she’d learn something that would help her do her job better. It’s understandable to be disappointed. I surely would be.

    I’m also sorry your workplace turned out to be such a mafia-like nest of crooks. Also glad that you liked my link and think it’s good. I sure hope not to find myself in a situation like that. I haven’t read Joey’s recommendation, but checked it out on Amazon, Office Politics by Oliver James and seems like something that could give its own perspective to some things.

    Since we’re at it, terrorism, brainwashing cults and fundamentalism seem to have been(and constantly be) discussed here, too. I agree(or is it a fact? lol!) that fundamentalism is unnecessarily divisive. I sure hope not to find such things screwing things up in my and others’ lives. And yet there is widespread propaganda on many different sides, even those that claim to be critical, claiming to be exclusively right, just, reasonable and true. Can you say lying, omission, distortion, fear/hate-mongering, spin, demonizing, false idolizing, I’m probably not even covering half of it! And all said with conviction. If it becomes a part of a person’s experience of reality like it is reality, then sounder evidence and other perspectives may be summarily dismissed or not even noticed. News, music, art, among others, are damn good weapons. Back to Orwell and 1984, what’s usually noted about the book is that certain things can then become inaccessible, like freedom. A person would only think of it in terms of a dog being free from fleas. Those topics seem kinda complex, more so than we may be able to cover in discussions, but it’s good that we make efforts to that, too.

    What about mass movements and revolutions? Revolutions tend to end violently. One tyrant for another etc etc.

    Suzi, I said “You know what’s depressing? When someone sees everything “critically”. I know some people like that and I don’t wanna make any conclusive statements here. I think if someone like that read “character matters” he’d think up why it’s not worth it, as if the mere possibility of doing anything about things or contributing was meaningless in the long run or to begin with. Looks like a self-reinforcing cycle to me and an insidious one at that.”

    I was thinking about pessisism, cynicism and apathy that some people seem to possess. I don’t know what you think, but I find it disheartening and hope no one here falls stays stuck there. It can be rationalized as “critical thinking”. Or really some do see flaws in pretty much everything. Apparently then even the possibility of corrective action is too pie-in-the-sky to even consider. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

    Dr Simon mentions people like that in Judas Syndrome, btw. In this article he says ” I encountered far too many children who did not feel fully and unconditionally loved. Some of these children knew in their guts that they were either unwanted in some way or considered too much of a burden to be fully and eagerly embraced. And this deep sense of rejection was at the bottom of a lot of their anger, depression, and despair. It also fueled a host of behavioral problems.”

    Sure there are many, many reasons why someone would become cynical, depressed, detached or indifferent. I’ve known some people like that and I don’t know their backgrounds all that well(if at all). It bothers me how such a cycle can come to be. So, would you tell me about it? Does a good childhood make a difference to how we deal with devastating traumas? At least bad childhood must make it worse(though people do seem to come through)? Do we need more extensive, in-depth and common trauma education or something?

    But some cynics can be confident. Recently on Youtube I found a few talks by an Indian man. He was not Osho the dynamic-meditation-cult-leader I’ve mentioned. I don’t want to mention his name here, though. He disparaged science on the basis of the horrors it has produced(like a nuclear bomb). And sure, there is a marketplace around spirituality, not the answer to any problem, but who can say if someone can’t find something wonderful there, too? This bloke said that you can only be heard if you have an influential position so why do people bother with spirituality stuff. Interestingly he made a point that he “stands alone” in a culture of individualism where you’re supposed to reach a height of achievement.

    The title of one video was Purpose of life. Go figure. So apparently “just live life”? What does that mean? Never try to do anything to benefit the larger community? For your and others’ good? Does such take your soul like in a cult? I don’t think so. Isn’t it this “individualism” that’s breeded “individuals” so, so similar to each other? How much individuals can we say they are? Would a unified community with shared strong values still have appreciation and want for diversity and unique individual contributions and aversion toward narrow-mindedness, despite any problems?

    So if we have people victimized, their trust’s been hurt, they could contribute a lot, do they need to hear how useless it’s to do anything? All that could have been would be lost. Why increase chances of that?

    Is cynicism the final answer just because it’s said with conviction?

    I’ve even heard a few times that deconstructionism that claims to be against fundamentalisms itself fragments culture. It’s adding its own mix to the mess, when we already have megachurches(like New Apostolic Reformation) preaching “strategic prayers” to “slay demonic people”, ISIS beheading people, Buddhist extremists hanging people from helicopters, “social justice warriors” harassing people and thus making Neo-Nazis look better, it’s sad how many forms dysfunction can take. Wasn’t there someone, who said there ought to be one huge indeconstructible(funny word, btw) if we’re not to wander in apathy and hopelessness? Deconstructionists are taking meaning out of pretty much everything.

    Reality is chaotic. Dr Simon himself talks about different metaphors. We’re not to take them literally. There are so many.

    Then I found some quote by Carl Clausewitz:

    “Theory cannot equip the mind with formulas for solving problems, nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and of their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action. There the mind can use its innate talent to capacity, combining them all so as to seize on what is right and true as though this were a single idea formed by their concentrated pressure – as though it were a response to the immediate challenge rather than a product of thought.”

    I’ve asked some of these on other forums and perhaps something comes up that eventually becomes a seed of something great. I wish so, oh how I wish. Questions just came flooding to my mind.


  2. Who would have thought to read a psychology book when it is time to get ideas on raising kids?! I think it is definitely a phenomenon of our age. It really does make perfect sense.

    I took my son out to eat at Subway last week and I told him to go ahead and order first. I bet before he was through the line he said YES PLEASE or THANK YOU at least five times. (That’s got to make a mama proud!) This got me to thinking about how when I worked at Quiznos so many kids would come through the line and act like it was my privilege to serve them. I always thought that quite a rude thing. I would even make my fellow employees dinner and very seldom would any of them thank me.

    One Saturday I took my son shopping for school. We went through the list of things that the teacher had sent home in the back to school packet. We got folders, paper, pencils, pens, markers etc……. Our basket was almost filled to the top. We got up to the check out cashier. After we had everything rang up and paid for my son looked at me and said, “Thanks mom for buying me all this stuff!” The cashier looked at me with her mouth open and stated that she never really heard that much. I just replied that I was so proud to have such a good boy. I guess when we work retail we get to see it all.

    I often use the way that I was raised as the guideline as how NOT to raise my kids. I can remember how when my malignant mommy narc got a compliment on one of us kids she would somehow manage to turn it around to be a compliment for her or even manage to damage our self-esteem with it. When we were checking out at the store and I would say THANK YOU MOM. If anyone ever noticed and told her that since I said that it was really sweet. Sometimes she would just reply that I was trying to butter her up so I would be sure to get something else. I was so embarrassed!!

    I never thought that I was going to be one of those old people who sat around saying, “Ya, when I was young I used to walk to school three miles, uphill both ways, with holes in my underwear.” I guess I kinda blew that… hahahaha…. I just feel this is very important. In CHARACTER DISTURBANCE Dr. Simon goes into the concept further.

  3. Thank you for this post Dr. Simon. As many of you know I have a little baby and have recently become aware that her grandmother is severely covert aggressive.

    I often wonder how she got to be that way. We know there could be a genetic predisposition and it makes me worried for my child. From what I know of my mils childhood, she was the first baby to a young mother who suffered severe post partum depression and my mils grandmother had actually stepped in to do much of the parenting. Mils mother has always expressed a lot of guilt because of this and I think she kind of “spoiled” my mil as a young child to compensate for her feeling. They also come from a prominent political family so I believe my mil was just all in all raised with 1). Attachment issues and 2). A huge sense of entitlement and lack of consequences.

    This post makes a great deal of sense. A child needs the security of unconditional love beneath their feet and strong clear and firm boundaries around them to guide them in life. And very importantly also a good role model they can look up to.

    1. Valencia, I really don’t think that there is a concrete answer as to why the dark individuals are emotional vampires. Dr. Simon does go more into raising children in CHARACTER DISTURBANCE. Yes, there are lot of stories about how spoiling a child does often lead to narcissistic tendencies. The child learns how to manipulate the system and get whatever they want. I can give you an example that I witnessed first hand. My sister is a huge psychopath. She even brags about how manipulative she is and how she coerced a woman to commit suicide. My psycho sister is five years behind my brother and my mom often stated that she was an accident. Psycho sister had a demonic look in her eyes since she was about eight months old. My mommy narc didn’t have time for any of us but she always gave psycho sister whatever she wanted so she didn’t have to deal with her. Psycho sister was breastfed and mommy narc even took her to bed with her so she could breastfeed all night long. Mommy narc did not want to have to be bothered to get up at night with her. Psycho sister only ever wanted to eat mac & cheese or Trix cereal. She got to eat that crap until she was about five years old. She always got cute and expensive everything and she was never told NO. She basically disciplined my parents. I could see that my mom was scared of her. My grandmother used to say that we needed to be careful about my sister when she got older. Hahahaha…… My sister was always in control of the house. My sister definitely has attachment issues and she was a master manipulator by eight.

      My mommy narc was the only girl in a family of little boys. She was never really wanted by her mother. I am sure she also suffers from attachment issues. Mommy narc was always so spoiled by her dad. Granny narc was always jealous of mommy narc and ignored her as much as possible.

      My SIL malignant narc was the youngest child and also an accident. I am sure she learned to manipulate at a young age. I really don’t know much about her childhood.
      She is very spoiled to this day and thinks she deserves it all because she is the ultimate. She is very good at making my brother feel like a loser so he works about 14 hours a day and falls asleep when he stops moving.

      1. It does sound like a reoccurring theme of rejection, (with them being “accidents” or having bad attachment) and a lack of structure (with spoiling and manipulative behavior going uncorrected). Seems like the opposite of what dr. Simon is saying is needed… Unconditional love and acceptance with solid behavioural structure.

        So creepy to imagine a baby witha demonic look! Eeek… I’m keeping an eye out for this kind of thing with my daughter but part of me feels guilty and I hope I don’t read too much into what’s probably normal tantrums etc. I’m sure my instincts will guide me well.

        1. It is very funny because I am from an unplanned pregnancy also. I was the skapegoat child though. I think that I was kinda planned by my narc mother to be used as a way for her to get out of her unhappy home. I don’t know if you know much about the skapegoat child but my childhood was very unhappy and I also had attachment issues. I was a bully In elementary school but I was very unhappy child. I was forced to look inside myself when I had a brain injury at twelve years old.

          My son and I are living with my parents right now. We need to get out as soon as possible. This place is a circus!! My dad tells me whenever he gets the chance that my son is going to be telling me what to do in a couple of years. I just laugh and think to myself, “You have raised one of the biggest psychos that I have ever encountered and you are telling me how to raise my son……. hahahaha.”

          I just used my childhood as a guide as to teach me how NOT raise my kids. I always wanted my kids to know they are loved. My son is eleven years old and still sits on my lap and holds my hand. I always chose to channel the behavior and not always stifle it. IF YOU WANT TO RUN AND SCREAM THEN YOU NEED TO GO OUTSIDE. I usually would let my kids question things. They need to learn too. Just remember that tantrums are not always bad. Sometimes when the parent can look into the root issue of the tantrum then it usually stops. Always look at the positive behavior like empathy they show. Manners and respect are always positive. Praising the good is a great idea. A child will usually want to follow whatever you do. Show them your best side!! Lol….

  4. Hi, I wondered if anyone out there is a parent and their daughter wont get help to cope with a narcissist/sociopath? Her husband who she has now left was threatening her, belittling her and had an alcohol problem. She was with him for 10 years and they have two young boys. My problem is that whilst she is attending al anon (which is a step forward) and says this helps alot as she can talk about her problems she is not getting any treatment which specifically helps her to deal with all the other issues. I have tried to persuade her to look at this site, read the books or attend specific counselling – all to no avail. In the meantime her husband is now being extra nice and she seems to be falling for it.
    She tells me i need to let go and detach from her which I feel i could do if she got the right kind of help. She recently said ‘yes his behaviour was wrong but i stayed and let it happen. Victims blame other people for everything that has gone wrong in their life and I am not a victim” Does this mean she is realising what has happened to her and I should let go? i am totally confused but want to do the best for her.

    1. You cannot help those who are not seeking help.
      Best is to stay away from day to day interaction, and just keep in touch. In case she is more receptive later on.

      If you wish, you can gift her an audiobook device with book In Sheeps Clothing preloaded. Some people just cannot read. Maybe she can listen to audiobook while driving around. Maybe she catches something that draws her attention to pattern in her life.

    2. Hi!! I was married to a hard core psychopath and I know it is a rough situation to break loose from. I know she is totally confused because aggressors know exactly which strings to pull at the right time.

      I saw my children being destroyed and that was a really big eye opener for me. You can try to talk to her about the damage this dysfunctional relationship is having on them. Mental abuse is very hard to break loose from. It’s a huge problem.

      Sometimes tough love is the answer. Be honest and open with her. Tell her that you are extremely worried about the welfare of the family. If she refuses to deal with things for her sake than ask her to do it for the children. Psychos are capable of doing so many things that can scar people for life.

      Let her know that you will offer her help. I never had help and my parents delighted in the fact that we were having so much trouble. I am not a counselor but I can offer an opinion that might help.

  5. Love this. Our children heal through us.

    I would like to add honesty to this because we as parents may be healing ourselves so the same applies not only to our children but to our own selves.

    We must love ourselves unconditionally and hold ourselves responsible to our healing goals as well. So self-care and self-compassion are important elements to teach our children that are important for them to develop healthy self-worth.

    It is challenging to compassionately witness our children who mirror us and who mirror themselves in us. We must hold ourselves accountable to our own goals with compassion at the same time we hold our children accountable to goals we set for them. Then we release them into the world to start their own families.

    However, it works. We were born in our human design to be joy-based and to source that joy from our own selves and to share it with others in mutually respectful relationships.

    Our pain-based emotions designed to protect us become overstressed and we become the neurotic target of the character disturbed parasites.

    So I would like to add, and teach our children how to recognize the character disturbed and how to protect themselves from their covert aggressive manipulation tactics.

    So I can say with comfort and ease, that my daughter is a person of character and is happy and I do not have to worry that she will be a target of narcissists and other character disturbed and disordered people and fear them like I did.

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