What Do We "Mirror" to Our Kids?
Have you ever seen a toddler approach a staircase and turn to look at their caregiver before proceeding? Did you ever notice a child turn to look at their parent, babysitter or te
acher before doing something they shouldn't? This is part of a developmentally normative strategy of keeping safe--kids look to adults to see what they should and shouldn't be doing. If the toddler looks back and sees a look of fear on their caregiver's face, it's likely they won't climb those stairs. If the same toddler sees an encouraging face, a smile, they are more likely to take the risk. Especially in early childhood, it's not necessarily the words we use as much as our facial expressions communicate what we need to feel safe.
Children grow up learning about their own feelings by watching the face of the caregiver. When a baby cries, they don't know that they're crying, sad, frustrated...everything is felt in their bodies, physiologically. They don't have emotions yet, or of course, words. They feel affect--a physiological sensation in their bodies. Most caregivers naturally *mirror* what they're seeing--they may make a sad or frustrated face and say something like "Oh, I know, you're hungry. Poor pumpkin, Don't worry, It's time to eat. Come on, come to me, yes, that's it". After hundreds and thousands of these interactions, babies and toddlers are learning that they have feelings, they begin to connect their caregiver's facial expressions and body language to feelings that they themselves have experienced AND they learn that these feelings can be contained...that they will be okay again soon in relation to their trusted adult.
"Mirroring" means "I see you" and "I love you" and "You are okay".
Problems with Mirroring
When parents have their own difficulties with anxiety, it can be hard to mirror for their children. Let's think about that toddler. If, when exploring their world, the toddler looks to their caregiver, who is struggling with their own anxiety, and that toddler sees an anxious face, they are likely to feel anxious themselves. They may not want to explore, thinking that the world is dangerous, or that their caregiver is not okay, which in baby worlds means that they themselves are not okay.
When caregivers are overwhelmed by their own feelings, they are unable to see the child outside of the shadow of their own emotions. Children may grow up being preoccupied with the emotional state of their parent, walking on egg shells, trying to take care of them, or performing for them in order to keep the peace. They may be overly compliant, they may be anxious themselves, they may even struggle with aggression. These kids often end up having difficulty containing their own feelings, experiencing a sense of shame about their emotional world, because they didn't have the repeated experience of feeling contained by someone else...and because children need and depend on their caregivers, when something isn't right, they blame themselves. "Something is wrong with me", becomes a feeling that, with continued problems in mirroring, grows deeply inside.
The Good News
There is lots of good news here. First, "mirroring" happens over hundreds and thousands of interactions. So if, as parents or caregivers, you have from time to time been caught up in your own anxiety or anger, but are able to generally remain in balance, chances are, that's okay! Better news, probably even ideal! Because those times are great opportunities to model how to talk about feelings, to apologize when appropriate, and to "reset"--to start again, and to reconnect.
The other good news is that if you feel like you're mirroring your own anxiety or anger instead of tuning in to your child's experience, therapy can help! Whether certain emotions have been a lifelong struggle, or you're going through a tough time, therapy can help you to feel grounded so that you can more effectively and joyfully relate to your children. The important thing to know is that there is no perfect in parenting. Don't let shame or embarrassment hold you back from getting the support you need to feel better about yourself and your relationship with your kids. It takes a village because parenting is. so. difficult. Call today for a consultation!