Applying Carl Rogersís Conditions for a Therapeutic Personality Change to Child Rearing
University of Colorado at Boulder
How can one bring about personality change in another? Is it possible to help someone change something about their personality they donít like? For example, can a therapist help inject courage into the veins of a client who is exceptionally shy? Can you help those that are prone to explosive anger learn how to manage their fury and caress away their volatility when they feel it boiling up? Is it possible to alter negative personality traits that lead to people getting caught in unproductive patterns? Carl Rogers (1957), a well renowned humanistic psychologist, believed that it was possible to state, in terms that are clearly definable and measurable, the psychological conditions which are both necessary and sufficient to bring about constructive personality change. I believe, though, that one can apply Rogersís theory to many relationships besides the therapist-client relationship and reap positive benefits unrelated to personality change.
Rogers identified 6 conditions that he believed would help produce positive personality change in another individual. The first condition proposed the notion that two persons must be in psychological contact for any type of personality change to occur. Rogers believed that significant positive personality change does not occur except in a relationship. This hypothesis indicates that it is unlikely that a rouge stranger will be able to bring about personality change in an unfamiliar person with whom he has no relationship.
The second condition propounded by Rogers is that one individual in the dyadic relationship, whom he labeled the ďclient,Ē is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious. This condition insinuates that the client in any client-therapist relationship typically comes to the therapist dissatisfied with something in their life with the presumption that the therapist can help them overcome their discontent.
The third condition set forth by Rogers states that the other individual in the dyadic relationship, the therapist, must be congruent or integrated in the relationship. This condition advocates the principle that the therapist must be completely transparent with their client and must not in any way be deceitful for adequate personality change to occur. It is very unlikely that a client will respect or be open with a therapist if they perceive them as being a liar or a fraud.
The fourth condition supposes that a therapist should express unconditional positive regard for their client. This means that the client and all of the clientís experiences need to be accepted warmly. This condition stresses that the therapist must completely accept the client even if the client possesses attitudes that are laced with malevolence or they routinely engage in harmful behavior. The therapist shouldnít judge the client.
The fifth condition propagated by Rogers revolves around the sentiment of empathy. Rogers believed that therapist must strive for an empathetic understanding of the clientís internal frame and try to communicate their feelings of empathy to the client. This means the therapistís job isnít to wipe away a clientís warm sour tears when they start trickling down their cheeks but rather, their job is to put themselves into their clientís shoes and try to see the world through their clientís misty eyes. Empathy is not trying to change or ďfixĒ your clientís feelings but rather trying to imagine yourself in their situation. You need to try to feel what they do and to see things from their point of view. You want your heartbeat and theirs to be keeping the same time and your perspectives to align.
The final condition identified by Rogers states that the communication to the client of the therapistís empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved. This condition basically means that the client needs to perceive that the therapist is accepting them unconditionally and to some degree that the therapist understands where they are coming from.
Carl Rogers conceptualized his conditions for positive personality change within the framework of therapeutic relationships; I believe though that one can extend his theoryís principles to other relational realms and reap an assortment of benefits. I think that oftentimes when people adopt a child they have a hard time developing an intimate relationship with the child due to various factors such as an adopted childís hesitancy to open up to their ďnewĒ parents. I believe that this problem can be overcome, though, by using Rogersís theory. I believe that parents who adopt a child need to pay a lot of attention to Rogersís theory if they wish to have a loving, transparent, and respectful relationship with their newly adopted child. In the following paragraphs I will describe why adoptive parents would greatly benefit from adhering to Rogersís theories if they wish to avoid problems that may arise in developing an intimate relationship with an adopted child.
It is essential that adoptive parents are open and transparent to their children in order to build trust with the child. Adopted kids will typically be very wary of trusting adults and who can blame them since many of them were betrayed by the one set of people that they probably thought they would always be able to count on: their biological parents. Some children in orphanages may have distant but fading memories of their biological parents while others may have never met them. Either way, when a childís parents abandon them they have deep abrasions cut into their spirit and psyche. Parents are suppose to comfort you and catch your tears in arduous times, they are suppose to have the ear thatís always eager to listen, to be the voice of reason that helps you navigate this winding maze that is life, and parents are always supposed to be the one constant in your life. One certainly does know that friends come and go; some lovers I fear are bound to disappear, but parents should be the steady presence in your life. Many kids that have grown up in orphanages or foster care, though, have never had the constant presence of a strong set of parents. If they have been in the foster system they may have met some people with compassionate hearts who truly wanted to help them but they may have also met a lot of people who merely took them under their roof for the money they would receive for such a deed. In situations like this the line between compassion and avarice runs thin. Since many children living in orphanages or in foster care havenít been able to develop a keen sense of trust it is important that adoptive parents keep in mind Rogersís notions of congruence and transparency. If adoptive parents want their adopted children to trust them and to self-disclose to them they must be willing to be completely honest. Oftentimes trust is a gift that must be given before it can ever hope to be received. If adoptive parents want a loving and open relationship with their adopted children they must be willing to be transparent and open with them. One of the best ways to get someone else to bear their soul to you is to bear your soul to them.
Adoptive parents would also benefit from listening to Rogers in regards to his thoughts on unconditional positive regard. Many kids who have grown up in orphanages or the foster system have porcelain hearts and self-esteem that has been completely shattered. Many of them wrestle with the briary question: If I wasnít good enough for my parents then how can I ever hope to be good enough for someone else? Many of them view love as a finite entity that they will never know. All parents need to show unconditional positive regard to their children, but especially adoptive parents. Parents who have adopted kids need to really make an effort to let their children know that they are loved and fully accepted for everything that they are. The thorns of a rose must be embraced and celebrated as much as the roseís scarlet pedals. How can we really appreciate the beauty and grace of someone if we donít embrace their frailties and their imperfections? Kids who have never had consistent parents or who have not known a true home are bound to have deep emotional scars, adoptive parents must make sure their kids know that they are loved and accepted for all that they are. Some of the deep emotional scars that kids who have grown up in orphanages have may never fully heal but the first step to a scab is unconditional positive regard.
Kids are bound to make mistakes in life; they are bound to let their parents down at times, who among us hasnít made a poor decision in the tempest of adolescences? Parents can punish their children; they can inform their children that their actions disappointed them but at the end of the day kids need to know that their parents love them with every ounce of their heart. Parents need to provide a blanket of unconditional positive regard so that their children feel free to take risk and make mistakes. When kids are learning how to fly out on their own they, like Icarus, might come crashing back down to the ground. Parents need to be the ones that are always there to catch their children when they fall. Kids need to know that their parents always have a shoulder they can lean on and that they can always count on their parents in sour times. I would venture to say that some of the best advice any parent can receive is to always have unconditional positive regard for your kids.
Unconditional positive regard is something that all parents should use when raising their children so that their children develop a secure attachment style with their parents. A secure attachment style is defined by Ainsworth as an ďan attachment style characterized by trust, a lack of concern with being abandoned, and the view that one is worthy and well likedĒ (Ainsworth, 1978). All kids should be raised in a manner that fosters in them the belief that they can trust their parents, that they wonít be abandoned, and that they are well loved. Children that develop a secure attachment style with their parents while they are children tend to be able to develop mature, long lasting relationships with others in their adulthood (Akert, Aronson & Wilson, 2007).
Besides a secure attachment style children can also develop an avoidant attachment style or anxious/ambivalent style. The avoidant attachment style is characterized by suppression of attachment needs, because attempts to be intimate have been rebuffed; people with this attachment style find it hard to develop intimate relationships (Ainsworth, 1978). These individuals had parents who rejected their attempts at love while they were a child which leads to them being uncomfortable in relationships and experiencing difficulty in developing close relationships in their adulthood. The anxious-ambivalent attachment style usually manifests itself in individuals when parents are inconsistent or overbearing in their affection and displays of love (Ainsworth, 1978). These individualsí grow up to have extremely anxious attitudes about love, and are plagued by worries that their romantic partners donít truly love them (Ainsworth, 1978). Since these people had inconsistent caregivers while growing up they are always on edge worrying that maybe their significant others will be like their parents and leave without a momentís notice. Many people donít realize that how kids are raised greatly affects them the rest of their life. The key assumption of attachment theory is that the particular attachment style we learn as infants and young children becomes our working model or schema for what relationships are like. This early childhood relationship schema stays with us throughout life and generalizes to all of our relationships with other people (Akert, Aronson & Wilson, 2007). If parents want their children to develop a secure attachment style, which will lead to them being able to form intimate and enduring relationships as adults, they need to offer their kids unconditional positive regard while they are young. Kids need to know that their parents love them and accept them exactly as they are.
Empathy, the fifth condition proposed by Rogers, is another important thing for adoptive parents to keep in mind when raising adopted kids. They need to realize that the bitter taste of rejection that orphans have probably tasted in the past might prevent them from warming up to someone in a swift manner. If an adopted child is initially distant or timid adoptive parents need to seek empathetic understanding and realize that it isnít personal, itís just hard for adopted kids to really warm up to any parental figure when their own parents betrayed them. Orphans learn how to guard their hearts and how to shoot Novocaine into their emotions to keep themselves from getting hurt. Orphans learn that the best way to keep from getting wounded is to never get too invested in a relationship or let your heart become too vulnerable. Thereís only so many times a porcelain heart can break until it shatters forever. Adoptive parents need to strive for empathy and to realize that it may take time for an adopted child to open up with them.
The strength, and main benefit, of Rogersís theory lies in the fact that it can be applied to so many different types of relationships and relational problems. Rogersís principles can bring about personality change in therapeutic relationships but they can also be used to cultivate fruitful romantic relationships, friendships, and parental-child relationships. The primary benefit of Rogersís theory lies in the fact that it can be used effectively in an array of different relational settings to help cultivate relational satisfaction and overcome intimacy problems. Openness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy if exercised appropriately will probably strengthen any relationship and bring people closer together.
The one weakness I see in Rogersís argument is that sometimes complete openness and transparency may be a bad thing for a relationship. In regards to the example I presented in the previous section, I can imagine some circumstances where it wouldnít be in the best interest of a parent-adopted child relationship for complete openness to take place. Imagine that a family had previously adopted a child and returned the child to the adoption agency because the child routinely engaged in delinquent behavior such as: stealing money from them, doing hard drugs in their home, etc. If this family were to adopt another child it probably would not be a good idea for them to inform their newly adopted child that they had previously adopted a kid and then returned them to the adoptive agency because of bad behavior. If this information were revealed it quite possibly could inhibit a relationship developing between the parents and their newly adopted child. Some things may be best left unsaid. Withholding information about the past isnít unethical if itís in the best interest of the current relationship and holds no relevance to the current relationship. Sometimes we need to let sleeping dogs lie if there is no chance they will ever awake and come back to bite us.
One limitation of Rogersís theory, as it applies to therapeutic relationships, was presented by Martin Buber. Buber believed that it wasnít possible for therapists and clients to engage in genuine dialogue. Buber defined genuine dialogue as ďwhen each of the participants really has in mind the other or the others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and themĒ (Buber, 1955). Buber did not believe that in a therapeutic relationship that genuine dialogue could be achieved due to the intrinsic nature of inequality that is embedded in therapeutic relationships. Buber believed that there are objective limitations to a client-therapist relationship due to the differences in power that are present between the two parties. For example, in his dialogue with Rogers, Buber put forth the notion that clients donít come to therapist with the intention of establishing a genuine relationship, they rather view the therapist as a means that can help them achieve some end. Clients donít come to therapists seeking to establish a genuine personal liaison; they go to a therapist because they view the therapist as a person that can help them in some way. They arenít interested in the therapist as a person; they are interested in what the therapist can do to aid them. Buber also suggested that the inequality that is present in client-therapist relationships is rooted in the fact that the discourse that occurs between therapist and clients centers solely on the clientís experiences. The therapist is free to inquire about the clientís life but the client cannot start questioning the therapist about his or her life. It would be quite peculiar if a client walked into their therapistís office and said ďDoc, jump up on the couch over there and letís talk about your childhood and how itís affecting your love life.Ē The main limitation of Rogersís theory is that it doesnít acknowledge the inequalities that exist in therapeutic relationships and it doesnít recognize the limits that therapeutic relationships have when it comes to achieving genuine dialogue.
Rogers conceived his theory as a means of bringing about positive personality change in another but one can use the principles of his theory to overcome and prevent problems in many relational settings. For example, married couples will probably get along better if they are honest with each other, harbor unconditional positive regard for one another, and routinely empathize with each other. Rogersís theory, as I have noted in this paper, also is extremely useful when approaching parental-child relationships. Rogersís theory is extremely important due to its versatility and its power in helping overcome and prevent relational problems in many different types of relationships.
Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Wall, S., & Waters, E. (1979). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Akert, R. D., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). Social psychology (7th ed.) (MyPsychLab Series). Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall
Anderson, R., & Cissna, K. N. (1997). The Martin Buber-Carl Rogers dialogue: A new transcript with commentary. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue. In Between man and man (R.G. Smith, Trans.; pp. 1-39) Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95-103.