From the day we bring our brand new baby home from the hospital we are constantly playing detective. Why are they crying? Are they hungry? Or tired? Maybe they’re in pain? Or are they too hot….too cold? They have no words so we tune into cues instead.
Even as our children grow older and start speaking, we still use these detective skills. Because guess what? Just like us adults, kids aren’t always great at putting into words exactly how they feel and why. It’s up to us to try to work out what is going on in their heads.
This is where reflective parenting comes in. The psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy and his colleagues at the Tavistock Clinic in London developed a theory of parenting based on a concept they call reflective functioning. This is the ability of a parent or caregiver to understand and make sense of what a child might be thinking or feeling at any given time.
A mother with high reflective functioning sees her child as an autonomous individual who has his or her own wants, needs, fears and desires.
A mother with high reflective functioning sees her child as an autonomous individual who has his or her own wants, needs, fears and desires. She has the ability to make sense of these based on her child’s behaviour. Crucially, she also has the ability to recognise her own thoughts, feelings and intentions as separate from those of her child.
It sounds complicated but I suspect it’s intuitive to some extent. It’s likely though that there are times when we are tired and hungry, in a rush or just having a generally bad day, when we aren’t so mindful of what might be going on in our little one’s head. Maybe it’s when we are out in public and we feel we are being judged on our ability to handle a situation by our fellow parents, and we are feeling embarrassed by the behaviour of our child.
For parents of small children, such situations can be a daily occurrence: a tantrum on the floor of the swimming pool changing rooms; clinging to our leg when arriving at a friend’s house; pushing a smaller child over in an effort to reclaim the territory around their toys. A child’s behaviour is underpinned by feelings – always.
Reflective parenting is about pushing the pause button and taking the time to reflect on what is going on in these sorts of situations.
Reflective parenting is about pushing the pause button and taking the time to reflect on what is going on in these sorts of situations. What are the main feelings that are present? What triggered them? And then, with this in mind, it’s about responding in a considered way.
Peter Fonagy and his colleagues incentivise us to be more reflective for another reason: they suggest that reflective parents are more likely to have reflective children. Perhaps this is because taking the time to understand a child’s feelings and discuss why they might be experiencing these emotions helps them, in turn, to understand and label their own feelings. It’s also validating their emotions – even if they managed them in a less than ideal way.
If you’re anything like me, even after knowing all this, there will still be times when all your good intentions go flying out of the window. Parenting is hard and children have an ability to push buttons in a way that virtually no one else can. (Or at least my children do!).
In the heat of the moment things often don’t go as we would wish them to. But don’t worry too much when things go pear-shaped. Learning from such experiences can be really useful. Rather than beating yourself up, ask yourself how you should navigate the situation if it crops up again. Might you be able to pre-empt it? And if you think you overreacted or were unfairly harsh then remember it’s never too late to say sorry!
The good things is that we have lots of opportunities to practice reflective parenting. After all, that next tantrum is only ever just around the corner!