When Pain Becomes Shame: The Perils of Parent Conditional Regard



One of the most difficult things to go through as a tennis parent is to watch your child develop ‘avoidance focused coping defenses’. This occurs when players develop competitive adaptations such as excuses, tanking, perfectionism, and anger explosions as an unconscious way of reducing the stress of competition.

While any player can develop these responses to reduce the normal fears that are a part of competing, it’s important to be aware as a parent that it's MUCH more likely that children will develop these adaptations when a child’s fear of failure has become exaggerated due to what can be called ‘parent conditional regard’.

The detrimental effects of parent conditional regard on children’s development are well researched and highly predictable…

Parent Conditional Regard and the Shame Emotion…

Parent conditional regard occurs when parents accidentally communicate love conditionally by tying special rewards and attention to winning, or withdrawing affection or attention for losing.

It is crucial that you know that parent conditional regard is most commonly subtly communicated without a parent's awareness via non-verbal interactions and emotions.

This means that due to the incredibly emotional nature of tennis parenting, all parents are at risk of communicating conditional regard.

In tennis, when children are competing for parental approval, because of the psychological power of parent-child interactions, sport becomes a test of self-worth that is dependent on high performance.

As a result, instead of experiencing the normal level of fear of failure that comes with competing, players begin to fear failure more intensely because of the shame they learn to associate with loss.

Shame is an incredibly debilitating emotion and brings with it a sense of being defective, worthless, and helpless, along with being exposed to others as unworthy of love.

Quite simply, when children start to experience shame instead of the normal pain that comes with defeat, they tend to respond predictably and urgently to avoid that feeling by way of 2 main ‘avoidance focused coping’ pathways.

2 Ways Children Come To Avoid the Shame of Defeat…

1.) Avoid Shame by Winning More

In psychology, this path is called maladaptive perfectionism.

What occurs here is that because players become so scared of feeling ashamed when they lose, they become incredibly motivated to avoid losing at all costs.

This scenario can result in a huge drive and extreme investment to act in ways that reduce the chance of feeling ashamed (because shame feels so bad).

And in situations when the child perceives that there’s no other alternative, this path can produce champions (usually short-term).

Unfortunately, it comes at a big cost!

Specifically, severe, long-term psychological issues underscored by the following core belief, “I’m unworthy unless I perform successfully”.

And while this avoidance fuelled solution can be workable in the juniors for some, it’s increasingly likely that as players get older and their competition gets stronger, more frequent losses will be unavoidable.

So at some stage along the developmental pathway in most cases of parental conditional regard, players tend to resort to the 2ndpathway.

2.) Avoid Shame in Ways That Increase Losing

When children whose parents communicate conditional regard encounter situations in which losing (and thus shame) is a significant possibility, they tend to enact defences such as avoiding challenges, becoming angry, ceasing performance effort, disengaging from the task, or withdrawing physically.

Unfortunately, as players enact these responses more habitually, they’re very hard to change as all serve to protect players from the shame that they’ve come to associate with loss.

So there is nothing that is more important as a tennis parent than ensuring that you communicate 'unconditional positive regard' regardless of your child's performance (this is different to effort or behaviour) because it is, in my experience the most powerful predictor of a child developing what I call 'Healthy Mental Toughness'. This is where a child not only becomes mentally tough, but also develops a long-term love of the game, while also developing self-views which best place them to respond well to the normal fears that are a part of competing.

If you would like to access our 10 Commandments of Parenting Mental Toughness Checklist You Can Do So Here...


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