Sunday, May 9, 2010


The Parenting Process Guidelines: Mirroring

Let's consider the second developmental theme.

Empathic mirroring offers children the experience of feeling seen, heard, understood and taken seriously as you validate their communication. Infants and children bring themselves to us through their feelings and their actions. Because we human beings are more alike than different, we all know what it is like to feel joy, sadness, despair, love, pleasure, fear, anger, disappointment, etc. The process of empathic mirroring is one of imagining ourselves in our children’s “emotional shoes” and being able to convey to them what we believe they are feeling. Empathic mirroring includes both verbal and non-verbal recognition of the intensity, color, tone and meaning of our children’s communication. When we validate children’s feelings with empathy we communicate a sense of caring curiosity and a desire to elaborate our understanding. When we verbally reflect the emotions of children and match their affects with our tone of voice and facial expressions in a way that explores rather than defines their meaning, we make room for adjustments in our understanding based on their responses. Feeling with children also increases our compassion, even if their behaviour at first is disturbing or not comprehensible. Compassion lets children know that we are with them, connected – that they are not alone.

By distinguishing feelings from actions and exploring with children what we believe is being emotionally communicated, we have a chance to learn and discover together more about the meaning of their behavior.

This exploration of meaning can also help transform toxic meanings that kids have arrived at on their own, to new, co-created meanings that nourish development i.e. “my frustration at attempting to master a task doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It means sometimes the process of learning new things is hard and frustrating”.

Recognizing children’s emotions validates their individual existence, making it safe for them to express their genuine feelings in their relationship with us.

Kids need to feel that they have been successful at communicating who they are, and that their emotions can be held and tolerated, thus expanding their ability to contain and tolerate the intensity of their own feelings without becoming disorganized or fragmented. Additionally, when children become overwhelmed and fragmented, being seen and heard is calming. Thus, we can help kids regain their emotional balance through accurate enough mirroring. In addition, being mirrored develops the capacity for self-reflection and teaches children to verbally identify and communicate their feelings. This means children develop an increasing ability to talk to parents instead of trying to be understood and recognized by dramatizing their feelings through their actions.

Mirroring is a process that both strengthens the connection and supports the unfolding of individual differences in the relationships between parents and children.

When we empathize with our children’s feelings, it doesn’t mean we agree with their meaning or interpretation of events. We have the ability to empathize and still stay connected to our own feelings, to tolerate the emotional expression of others while still feeling ourselves when either does not overwhelm us. Mirroring our children’s emotions can also give us the emotional space to regulate ourselves. Instead of on-going power struggles, and repeated misunderstandings, mirroring a child’s emotions while setting limits or while negotiating differences creates the real possibility of conflict leading to growth. Mirroring also gives us a way to recognize our contribution to our children’s upset feelings by validating their experience instead of discounting them. This gives us a way to repair misunderstandings. By remembering that we are not perfect (and neither are our kids) we can better to tolerate the shame of our own missteps, this in turn supports our children’s ability to tolerate the shame of their missteps. Thus neither parent nor child need feel humiliation, shame or loss of self-esteem or intimacy.

Without accurate enough mirroring children are confronted with having to choose between the bond with their caregivers or their own feelings. Most children instinctively choose the bond, and disavow their own feelings as a natural unconscious reaction to protect the empathy they depend on to survive.



To accurately mirror another:
Listen for and identify a specific emotion you hear and then reflect it back, conveying through tone and intensity that you get as best you can the experiential feel of their communication.

For example: My little girl comes home from school with castdown eys and says, "Nobody likes me." And instead of trying to reassure her by telling her not to be silly, I say in a matching soft tone, "You sound so sad. Feeling like nobody likes you? Sounds like you had a really hard day". A mirroring response will lead to an opening of a genuine opportunity for connection.

My little one saying,"Yes, mommy. I'm sad. Suzie wouldn't sit next to me today and yesterday she was my best friend."gives us a place to start.

Empathic mirroring is a heart skill, and like any skill improves with practice.

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