Loving unconditionally is one of the most important gifts we can receive as children. Moreover, it’s the very best gift we can offer our own children if we become parents.
Why is unconditional love so important? Because it affects so many aspects of mental and physical health. Multiple studies have revealed the positive effects of love, which include
- Healthier brain development in childhood
- Enhanced ability to forge positive relationships
- Greater stress resilience
- Stronger immune system.
Moreover, researchers have documented the negative results when children do not receive this type of love. Therefore, evidence shows that unconditional love is one of the most powerful factors in healthy development for children and teens.
Conditional vs. Unconditional Love
When parents accept, love, and show affection to their children, even when they make mistakes or fall short of expectations, this is love unconditional. In other words, it is a form of love with no strings attached. Therefore, parents love their children for who they are, no matter what.
In contrast, conditional parenting gives children the message that they must earn their parents’ love. Therefore, children feel they need to fulfill their parents’ expectations in order to receive their affection and approval. As a result, such children tend to exhibit anxiety and to question whether they are worthy of love, even when they reach adulthood.
True, conditional love and authoritarian parenting sometimes result in higher achievement in children and teens. However, the negative impact of conditional love far outweighs these superficial “benefits.”
A series of studies with college students showed that those who received conditional approval were more likely to act as their parents wanted them to. But, as a result, they tended to resent and dislike their parents. In addition, they often felt ashamed or guilty.
Moreover, these researchers also studied mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations. Consequently, they now felt less worthy as adults, the study found. Yet, despite their own experience, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children. Thus, the cycle of conditional love is perpetuated.
The Impact of Loving Unconditionally on the Developing Brain
Many studies show that traumatic parent-child attachments in infancy have a significant negative impact on brain development.
Specifically, a 2012 study found that children with affectionate mothers have a larger hippocampus than those who have been emotionally neglected. To clarify, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls memory, learning capabilities, and responses to stress.
“Our study suggests a clear link between nurturing and the size of the hippocampus,” said lead researcher Joan L. Luby, MD, professor of child psychiatry. “Having a hippocampus that’s almost 10 percent larger just provides concrete evidence of nurturing’s powerful effect.”
She added, “Parents should be taught how to nurture and support their children. Those are very important elements in healthy development.”
The Link Between Emotional Neglect and Disease
Furthermore, withholding love can actually have physical effects during childhood. For example, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that children who have authoritarian parents—parents who put too much focus on achievement and rarely show affection—are more likely to be obese than children whose parents often show affection. Specifically, the study of 40,000 children aged 6 to 11 found that authoritarian parents are 37 percent more likely to have obese kids.
Subsequently, emotional neglect has negative biological implications even in adulthood. A 2013 study found that adults who experienced a lack of affection in childhood were more stressed and had greater disease risk.
Researchers studied individuals who experienced emotional or physical abuse as a child, with little or no parental love and affection. As a result, they discovered that these adults had a particularly elevated risk for disease across all body systems.
However, the study also found that parental warmth and affection protect children against the harmful biological impact of childhood stress. Moreover, affection reduced the risk of adult disease. Therefore, the impact of unconditional love on physical health is undeniable.
Unconditional Love Builds a Foundation for Healthy Relationships
Yet another study on parent-child relationships found that mothers who were less controlling when playing with their young children had stronger bonds with their kids.
Consequently, researchers theorized that the children of less-controlling mothers felt more accepted and loved—leading to better relationships.
Thus, unconditional love has a powerful impact on the parent-child attachment bond. Furthermore, this bond determines a child’s ability to form authentic connections. Additionally, it determines how easily that child will be able to make authentic connections as a teenager and an adult.
Children or teens with a secure attachment know that their parents are emotionally available and responsive to take care of them. Therefore, they learn to trust and rely on others. In addition, they are better able to regulate their emotions and be their true self.
Consequently, this allows for an authentic connection. Otherwise, they tend to be insecure, anxious, and fearful. This results in behaviors ranging from aggressive and demanding to clingy and dependent.
Unconditional Love and the Brain’s Reward System
Moreover, one study has mapped the areas of the brain involved in this form of love. Researchers at Montreal University instructed participants to feel love toward specific people in a series of photographs. Simultaneously, they scanned their brains using an fMRI machine.
As a result, they found that this type of love involves a distinct neural network in the brain. Specifically, seven areas of the brain are involved with this emotion. Furthermore, this network contains cerebral structures that are also involved in romantic and maternal love.
Moreover, some of these structures are key components of the brain’s reward system. In other words, some of the areas activated when a person gives love unconditionally are also involved in releasing dopamine, the chemical involved in sensing pleasure.
“The rewarding nature of unconditional love facilitates the creation of strong emotional links. Such robust bonds may critically contribute to the survival of the human species.”
—Professor Mario Beauregard, lead researcher for the Montreal University study
Compassion, Meditation, and Unconditional Love
Compassion is an essential ingredient for unconditional love. And we have the ability to strengthen our “compassion muscle.” Specifically, meditation has been shown to increase our capacity for feeling compassion and love. Furthermore, a practice known as loving-kindness meditation (LKM) has been proven to increase both of these emotions.
Positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson investigated the impact of LKM on emotions and build personal resources. Participants practiced LKM every day for nine weeks. Subsequently, researchers measured the changes in their experiences of positive emotions, their immunity to illness, and their relationships to others.
According to Fredrickson, “The practice of LKM led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe.”
Moreover, another study compared the brains of people who had practiced LKM for at least 10,000 hours with people who were new to meditation. As a result, researchers found that LKM meditators showed more activity in the insula and the temporal parietal juncture, two parts of the brain responsible for the ability to empathize.
In addition, researchers at Stanford University found that just seven minutes of LKM increased participants’ feelings of social connection toward others. “These results suggest that this easily implemented technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation,” the study authors wrote.
Directing Self Love
Adults who did not receive love unconditionally as children are often very hard on themselves. In other words, they do not feel worthy of affection. Therefore, they find it difficult to forgive themselves for their mistakes and to accept themselves as they are.
However, the practice of self-compassion can help heal the attachment trauma that results from conditional love. Research on self-compassion shows that it has multiple positive benefits, including
- Increased happiness
- Greater optimism
- More positive mood
- Stronger personal initiative
- A sense of curiosity and exploration
- Better ability to relate to others.
Furthermore, self-compassion is actually a more powerful motivator than self-esteem, according to researcher Kristin Neff. Specifically, self-esteem depends on our accomplishments and on others’ opinions of us. However, self-compassion involves a consistent attitude of acceptance and kindness toward ourselves—in other words, unconditional self-love.
To summarize, children who receive unconditional love from their parents have better stress resilience, better health, stronger self-esteem, and better brain development. Thus, it is critical for healthy emotional and physical growth.
In conclusion, people of all ages can strengthen their ability to give themselves and others love—by practicing compassion and self-compassion, on Mother’s Day and every day.
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