This blog is adapted from a presentation I gave last week at the annual fall Parents in Action school representative lunch. They asked me to speak about reflective parenting, which is a clinical application of mentalizing. In the talk, I focused more on how to practice reflective parenting than describe it, so if you’d like a fuller description of the concept, see “What is Mentalizing?”
In a nutshell, reflective parenting is a way of understanding and nurturing your relationship with your child, by being curious about what is happening in her or his mind. Your child has a mind of her or his own, and it’s crucial that they know that you recognize and value this. It’s the foundation for their sense of “self”, their confidence in their own ability and agency, and as research is repeatedly demonstrating, their cognitive development.
So when we practice reflective parenting, we are trying to crawl inside your child’s head and understand what they are thinking and feeling. But in order to even begin to do this, you have to have a pretty secure understanding of yourself as a parent. In other words, you have to have enough perspective about your own thoughts and feelings so that you are not preoccupied by them.
Sometimes, your ability to do this is compromised. For example, becoming a parent is a challenging transition. Some parents really struggle because the experience of being a parent and having a needy baby around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, triggers some something from their own childhood, or insecurities, fears, or frustrated expectations. When this happens, parents lose their ability to understand that the experience of the baby in front in front of them is not a mirror of their own internal experience. We call this phenomenon “Ghosts in the Nursery” from a seminal article of the same name, written by Selma Fraiberg in 1975.
Another big developmental transition in parenting occurs when your child suddenly doesn’t want to be with you anymore, won’t talk to you and behaves as if your existence on this earth is intolerably irritating. We call this phenomenon adolescence. This is often when parents come to see me. They are usually looking for advice about how to manage their child’s behavior. Not surprisingly, they want to know what to do, and what strategy, reaction or discipline will evoke the desired behavior. Reflective parenting has a radical new idea for you: your child’s behavior isn’t really the issue.
How many of you are reading this and thinking, “Oh yes it is”? Unless your child is engaged in risky behavior (and we’ll return to this), honestly, his or her behavior is really not that important. What is important is to be able to reclaim your relationship, which will depend upon your ability to understand what your child is thinking and feeling. Once you can this, you will be able to respond to her thought processes - feelings, thoughts, intentions and desires - rather than react to her behavior. In fact, practicing reflective parenting will teach you how to not react to her behavior. We can help you with this here st Freedom Institute. Think about how you feel when you feel understood. You are much more likely to take advice and suggestions from someone if you feel that they have understood you.
Now, this does not mean that you don’t have to address the behavior. Reflective parenting is not a metaphor for “parenting without limits.” Reflective parents are not focused on what a child wants, but on what she or he needs. Very often, those two things are quite different. But you stand a much better change of successfully managing your adolescent’s behavior if she feels that you are trying to understand her.
Adolescents literally see the world different than we do. For one, his brain has not fully developed. You all know this, but it’s worth repeating. Neurobiology has taught us that the prefrontal cortex of the brain - the area that governs all the executive functions; decision making, planning, moderating social behavior, moral reasoning, and impulse control - does not fully develop until age 25-30.
So when you look at your adolescent in exasperation/annoyance, “What were you thinking?” the answer often is “Uhhh…I don’t know.” Physiologically, his brain has not developed to the point where he can always fully understand the consequence of his actions. So you think you are making a reasonable, rational argument (in fact, you are probably congratulating yourself on the fact that your have not lost your temper under circumstances of extreme provocation), and he hasn’t heard a single thing you’ve said. Not because he wasn’t listening, but because he doesn’t see or understand the world in the way you do. He can’t.
Adolescence is a vulnerable time for parents because it is the beginning of the process of separation. Similar to infancy, it’s a transition that is likely to trigger “ghosts” from your own internal world in form of fears or fantasies. Consciously or unconsciously, we know that our children are going out into the big bad world, and it scares us. So we often - I hear this all the time, and I’ve done it myself - become filled with the desire to “stuff it all in,” to impart every piece of wisdom we have while they are still under our wing.
But in our anxiety, it’s easy to confuse the fact that our experience is not their experience. What we are thinking and feeling, in all likelihood, is not what they are thinking and feeling. Think about how you feel when your child experiences some sort of social rejection. We experience it as devastating. It triggers every social anxiety button we have, we all flash back to 7th grade, and we feel like it is happening to us again. And worse, we desperately want to protect our child from what we think is coming.
In these moments, try to remember that your child is a unique individual with his or her own mind. It’s very probable that you are imagining something far worse than what your child is experiencing, because you are both reliving your own experience, and your protective parental instinct is aroused.
At Freedom Institute we sometimes see a version of this parental confusion that is particularly dangerous because it results in an inability to set, or stick to, appropriate limits. These parents start thinking like their adolescents; they forget that they have their own mind, and as a result, fall victim to the “Everyone else can do it” (which is almost never true), or “I won’t have any friends” entreaties. It’s very difficult to maintain a parental role when you are thinking like an adolescent.
Hit "pause" and don’t confuse what you are thinking and feeling with what you imagine your child is thinking and feeling. So how can you do this? Practice a little reflective parenting of your own mind. Think about what might be motivating your actions. This exercise is particularly valuable when you find yourself reacting very strongly to situations, or when you find yourself really conflicted about what to do. Or both, because they often occur together. Stop and ask yourself what’s really going on in your head, and what you are bringing to the situation. The old term “baggage” is a good descriptor here.
Finally, I’d like to briefly address how to be a reflective parent if your adolescent is engaging in risky behavior, because this is one time where doing something becomes paramount. In our work at Freedom institute, we’ve seen how hard it is for parents to make this leap. It’s also an issue that frequently divides parents: one will worry that their son or daughter is in trouble, while the other thinks its “normal teenage experimentation.”
And it’s scary. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to reassure parents when they express a worry about a child. Friends will tell you that it’s “normal” or ‘fine” or “no big deal.” No one wants to believe that there is anything wrong, and almost every parent will take almost all the reassurance offered. But trust your instincts. If you think there is a problem, there usually is. It may not be substance abuse, but a deeper issue, and your child is using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. When this is happening, do not delay. Get help. Your child is in pain. Early, aggressive intervention offers the best outcome.
I describe reflective parenting as the art and practice of watching, waiting, wondering, and guiding, while your child develops into the person they are meant to be. When you do this, you will develop a deep and intimate relationship with your child that will endure all the developmental transitions you both will have to navigate. It takes time and practice, but is well worth the effort, because research has shown that the single most critical factor in your child’s development is her relationship with you. The quality of this relationship will determine how a child views her or himself in relationships for the rest of his or her life.