Parental Mirroring

By parental mirroring, I mean the way that parents consciously or subconsciously reflect or “mirror” the emotions and feelings or aspirations of the child, which has the effect of validating, accepting, or showing love toward that child. There is an acceptable parameter of boundaries for what emotions, and what conditions, when mirroring works best. Certainly angry outbursts, excessive crying fits, and bratty eruptions are not the conditions under which mirroring kicks in. Look for those authentic, meaningful, natural moments of a child’s expressiveness—parents know the difference—and that’s when mirroring, and thus validation, is appropriate and best utilized.

Parents who seldom mirror or do not exhibit mirroring are alienating themselves from their children. In these family circumstances, parents will come across as being uncaring, distant, self-absorbed, lacking confidence, narcissistic, unloving, non-accepting, dismissive of their children, regretful about having had children at all, judgmental, or otherwise lacking empathy. This is quite a line-up of poor parenting traits. The sad reality is that millions of children, teenagers, young adults, and middle-aged adults see their parents as predominantly exhibiting one or more of these unfortunate characteristics.

When mirroring is absent in one’s childhood, the child does not feel accepted or loved for who they are. Rather, what is often the case is that the child, eventually, will feel that the only way to be accepted or truly loved by his/her parents is through specific forms of achievement.  These forms of accomplishment will likely be in areas of little or no interest to the child, let alone in areas where the child has exhibited a talent or strength.

Some counselors and psychologists maintain that there is only one form of authentic mirroring, and that would be of the subconscious kind, whereby the parent (or the child) naturally reflects the emotion they are perceiving in the child (or the parent).  I like to stretch the definition of mirroring and include not just subconscious and conscious mirroring, but I also see that mirroring can include the modelling of positive behavior or attitudes or habits.

Modelling desired behavior in an enthusiastic way can be infectious and can develop a positive attitude toward acquiring the skills or engaging in the activities meant to benefit the child.  Crawling around on the floor next to the child and modelling how to put some of the toys back where they belong—this is how I stretch the definition of mirroring, because the parent is acting out the kind of behavior desired in the child, but in such a way that is not punitive or demanding.  The aim is to support the child’s sense of accomplishment and worth. An even better scenario would be to mirror the good behaviors that you are already seeing and observing in your child. In this way, mirroring the right behavior will validate the child’s choices without issuing a judgmental tone, thus reinforcing an intrinsic sense of right behavior.

Enlivenminds Top Ten Mirroring Moments for Parents:

  • [Following a bad report from the teacher regarding your child’s struggle to cooperate with others in class…]
    • “I heard it was a challenging day at school today—I understand it can be difficult sometimes to partner with your students…”
  • [Upon learning that your child was unwilling to participate in a classroom activity …]
    • “We know that things you have to do at school can be stressful, or that you may not be in a mood to engage in the activity. Let’s talk about how to deal with that…”
  • [The immediate aftermath of a broken toy, or some sudden circumstance that shuts down an activity that was eagerly anticipated…]
    • “I feel sad and disappointed, too, when I can’t do something that I so much wanted to do. Sometimes choosing a different activity can help us feel better and not so upset…”
  • [An episode of high anxiety that the child feels prior to a test or a project’s completion date…]
    • “You seem worried and upset about that homework project. I sometimes feel those same things when I have a big thing to do at work. Let’s walk through a real simple step that can get us going in the right direction…”
  • [When the child exhibits a fit upon being reminded about a household chore…]
    • “What I’m hearing from you is that you are upset about doing your chores; I know you say your friends don’t have to sweep the kitchen floor, and so it is unfair that we ask you to do this … but this is what we’re trying to accomplish…”
  • [When the child begins pouting over a change in family plans, and there won’t be a movie to watch this afternoon…]
    • “I’m noticing that you are about to cry. I see that you are hunched over and you are staring at the ground and that your facing is reddening.”
  • [When the child hollers mean words at the parent after being told to stop what he’s doing and to come to dinner right now…]
    • “What I hear is that you feel I’m the meanest dad in the world, and that you hate me, and that I should just go away forever…”
  • [When the child refuses to depart an activity he/she had been engaged with for over twenty minutes…]
    • “I see how frustrating this is for you, to abandon one activity and take up another one. You must feel great when you can stick with a project for several hours.”
  • [When the child feels jealousy over a sibling who is getting a lot of attention for her/his accomplishments, such as on the piano or in dance class…]
    • “I know you wish you were playing an instrument like your brother and that you were able to perform for the family, but I’m so proud of your own unique talents…”
  • [Following the basketball game as your child complains about not getting much playing time…]
    • “I could tell that you wanted to play a lot more than you did, and I’d like to see you play more too, so let’s discuss some ways you can impress the coach during practice over the next few weeks…”