I tell parents all the time: "When your child is upset, it's not about you!" The most helpful thing is to take a step back and engage in a process called mirroring. Mirroring is essential to the emotional development of children because it encourages self-reflection, it helps kids feel understood and accepted, and it promotes the full and healthy expression of emotions.
When we mirror our children, we are telling them really amazing things with our actions:
- "All of your feelings are ok."
- "You are wonderful just the way you are."
- "You are not alone in this world. I see and understand you."
- "You are worthy of care and focused attention."
- "Your feelings and thoughts have something important to teach you."
- "Nothing you can say or do will make me stop loving you."
Actions speak louder than words, remember? So let's talk about how to mirror your child:
1. Step back, emotionally.
When your child starts to become overwhelmed by strong emotions (anger, sadness, fear), remind yourself to take a giant step back emotionally. This is often the hardest step for parents. You need to ground yourself in your own oasis of calmness and clarity, instead of getting sucked into your child's pain and chaos. If you notice yourself having strong emotions in reaction to your child, take a time-out to care for yourself and get grounded. More on that in my post about self-care. Remind yourself, "This isn't about me." If you aren't calm and centered, you simply can't help your child. Find your calm center first.
(Note: This step can be especially difficult when your own childhood wounds are being triggered by your child. For instance, a Mom whose parents were unpredictable and threatening in their discipline style may become extremely distressed when her child expresses anger. Or a Dad who was always told to "suck it up" when he was sad may find himself extremely uncomfortable, withdrawing when his son cries. More on this in a later post.)
Use your child's exact words when possible. Don't be shy about repeating swear words or disrespectful commentary on yourself. Use a tone of voice that matches your child's tone without mocking them. If your child is yelling, use a louder, more angry voice tone. If your child is barely whispering and sounds sad, reflect that to a certain degree.
Remember, this isn't a teaching moment about your child's behavior, and this isn't about you. You are helping your child feel heard and helping them calm down. Your child is extremely upset, and their limbic system is too activated to be able to learn right now. You can teach a lesson later, when your child is calm. For now, just reflect exactly what you hear. If your child isn't speaking, reflect what you see in their actions and body language. Try to be as detailed and specific as possible. This is all about close observation.
When you are able to reflect your child's emotions with total clarity, it can become a form of emotional self-protection for you. You aren't reacting emotionally to what they are saying: You are totally focused on your child's feeling.
Please know that you can reflect what your child thinks and feels without agreeing with your child. You aren't approving of bad behavior or condoning disrespect. You aren't saying they don't have to do their chores, only that you hear how much they hate their chores.
Here are some examples:
"What I hear you saying is that you hate doing your chores. It is so unfair, and none of your friends have to unload the dishwasher."
"So you're thinking I'm the worst Mom in the world, and I hate you, and I'm really, really really, really mean."
"You feel really fucking pissed off at me right now."
"You look like you're about to cry; you're holding your breath and looking down at your shoes and your eyes are all watery."
"Your face is bright red and your eyebrows are really frowning hard right now! Your hands are clenched into really tight fists!"
"Your breathing just got really fast and your feet just want to move, they are so fidgety."
3. Ask: "Did I get it?"
If your child says yes, move to step #4.
If your child says no, ask them for another chance to listen. Say, "I'm sorry. Can we try again? I promise I will listen harder this time." Repeat steps #2 and 3 as many times as possible until your child says "yes, you got it."
Remember this isn't about being right; it's about your child feeling heard. It's about your child feeling that you "get it." Some kids need to hear their exact words repeated 5 times or more before something clicks and they feel heard. Some kids just need you to reflect parts of a longer monologue. Keep trying until you "get it"! Remember your child is the judge of this.
4. Ask "Is there more?"
This one can open up so much for kids! Sometimes your child will get really upset about "little stuff," like chores, but when you mirror them and ask for more, they will tell you about the "big stuff"- their heartbreak over a bully at school, your divorce 4 years ago, the loss of a pet, or another hidden issue. When your child sees that you are capable of truly understanding him, he will want to trust you with his whole heart.