Carl Rogers vs. Supernanny

Jeremy Sharp, PhDtherapy Leave a Comment

Another interesting piece from the New York Times. This article speaks to something very core for myself and other therapists that I know; it has also been hotly debated in the literature on effectiveness of therapy. This issue is the role of the parent-child relationship, and therapist-client relationship by extension, in therapy.

The article mainly discusses some recent research detailing the effects of conditional positive regard on children. Conditional positive regard is the idea that parents dole out love or praise conditionally, or only when the child does something deemed to be worthy of it. The article also talks about the related idea of withdrawing love or punishing when the child does something “wrong,” and states that both of these forms of conditional parenting can be harmful. I recognize that this is a hot issue and can be taken all sorts of ways for discussion, but I’m going to limit the scope of the article to the impact on the therapeutic relationship.

Enter Carl Rogers. Any clinician in the counseling field has heard of Carl Rogers. He’s famous for promotion of unconditional positive regard – accepting and supporting individuals regardless of what they do. The therapeutic techniques that reflect this approach often make up the bulk of Introduction to Counseling classes in peer education, undergraduate, and graduate programs across the country. This unconditional positive regard, at least in the beginning of the therapeutic relationship, helps form the solid connection that many therapists (myself included) feel is integral to doing the harder work later on.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I feel that this article highlights a few things relevant to my practice. The first is that the parent-child relationship is certainly an important component of many clients’ presenting problems. And that conditional love is particularly troublesome, because it often sets the stage for how individuals relate to others later on in life. The first example that comes to mind is the client who learns that they are only lovable when they accomplish things. Personally and professionally, I’ve seen this situation lead to an inability to share failure, feelings of shame, and/or a constant need to “do” (at work, in relationships, etc.). Which ultimately makes it difficult to be fully in relationship with others, and by nature reinforces the idea that the individual can only be loved conditionally.

The second part that is relevant is the implication that the therapeutic relationship can be healing in and of itself. That clients can experience this unconditional positive regard from a therapist and “unlearn” their assumptions about their self-worth and ways of relating to others. This idea is not revolutionary by any means, but it is certainly nice to have some research to potentially support it.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic. I make this post now to open the door for many others on related topics – evidence-based practice, managed care, and long-term vs. short-term therapy are a few that pop up immediately.

Comments, as always, are welcome – thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.