This dimension describes the ways in which the caregiver is able to convey that the child is unconditionally accepted and valued for who he is, for his difficulties as well as his strengths. This forms the foundation of positive self-esteem, so that the child can experience himself as worthy of receiving love, help and support and also as robust and able to deal with set-backs and adversity. This area of caregiving builds on the dimensions of availability and sensitivity. Children need to learn to trust and to manage their feelings and behaviour in order to believe the praise of caregivers and to take up opportunities that are on offer.

The child's needs and behaviour

Many children who come into foster care, adoption and residential care have a profound sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem, often complex and deep rooted in origin. Their early parenting may have lacked warmth and acceptance. For some children, family life may have been frightening at times and the tendency of young children to see themselves as having a magical responsibility for negative events can lead them to experience themselves as dangerous, bad and worthy only of punishment.

Low self-esteem for children may also be connected with multiple separations and losses of familiar people and, for some children, compounded by the stigma and sense of difference incurred by being fostered or adopted. Children, therefore, are likely to have deep seated doubts about their fundamental ‘goodness', whether or not they ‘deserve' loving care and whether or not they will receive it if they are naughty or needy.

Children who do not have an internal working model of close adults as warm and accepting and themselves as loved and loveable will find it hard to face the world with confidence. They have not learned that they can be both ‘good and bad', ‘clever or not so clever', and yet still be accepted and valued. They often believe that if they cannot be the best then they must be the worst. The danger, then, is that a child becomes trapped in a negative cycle in which she expects failure or rejection and so behaves in ways that are likely to produce this outcome.

Caregiver thinking and feeling

Caregivers must hold in mind the sense that this child needs me to value and accept him or her – whatever may be the stresses of caring for the child. Alongside this, and especially if caring for the child is challenging, the caregiver must remember – I need to value and accept myself, so that their own emotional resources do not become depleted. This may be a key area of intervention for support workers. Caregivers who are feeling overwhelmed by their children's needs and finding it hard to parent positively may need to be reminded of their strengths and skills and that it is the child's history that is creating problems in the family, making it difficult for them to parent the child in the way they would want.

By modelling acceptance of both strengths and difficulties in the caregiver, support workers can convey the message, ‘You do not have to be perfect', alongside providing caregivers with advice, discussion and training that will help them to develop new approaches and to parent more positively.

Caregiving behaviour

Caregivers can then build a range of skills and strategies for helping the child to feel good about him / herself and to manage setbacks. Difficult behaviour can be approached in ways that do not undermine the caregiver's own self-esteem or that of the child. The positive message to the child is, ‘Nobody is good at everything but everybody is good at something' and so there is a focus on activities and interactions that both help caregivers to regain their sense of being competent and successful and enable children to feel positive about themselves.

This positive approach does not mean that behaviour difficulties are not challenged or that goals are not set to reduce behaviours that are upsetting or anti-social. On the contrary, it is critical for children, especially older children, to feel acceptable and accepted not only in the family, but also in their peer group and the wider community. Caregivers, therefore, have to manage a careful balance between accepting children as they are and helping them to change aspects of behaviour that threaten their acceptance by others.

The child's thinking and feeling

The goal is for children to begin to think - I am accepted and valued for who I am. I do not have to be perfect in order to be loved and valued.

For some children, accepting themselves will always prove difficult, even with the most sensitive and accepting care, but self-esteem is so critical to healthy development that even small degrees of progress are worth working for.

Linked resources

Acceptance cycle pdf

Positive caregiving approaches

Video clip of former foster child, John, describing how he felt accepted by his foster carers

The Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption