Who Am I? It’s a universal question that begins to be asked when we are very young. Our sense of self includes those roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves. Building our identity is a fluid and dynamic process that occurs over a lifetime but initially takes shape during childhood and adolescence, impacted by our early family relationships.
Young children develop a sense of themselves as a result of how their parents “mirror” back their thoughts and feelings. If a child is experiencing a strong feeling and a parent mirrors back that emotion with relative accuracy, validation and empathy, the child feels “seen”—which allows them to then move through that emotion more quickly and better access their ability to behave differently or find a solution to their problem.
Mirroring gives your children reassurance that their feelings are valid and important. Over time this helps them create a sense of themselves that they matter, and that they can trust their own feelings. Children who experience this kind of consistent validation while growing up are more likely to develop into adults that can better manage feelings of anxiety, feel more secure in their decision-making skills, and assert themselves confidently with the people in their life. Children who are continuously criticized, invalidated or shut down are more likely to develop an identity based on numerous false perceptions about themselves. Since they learn not to trust their own feelings, this may lead to developing persistent self-doubt, or a need to depend upon or take care of others, or other distortions that can cause difficulty in adulthood.
Parents who develop the skills to effectively mirror their child or teen experience closer relationships and are able to more easily navigate through challenging situations.
Effective mirroring looks like this:
Child: Irritable and complaining about having to miss a playdate due to illness.
Parent (effective mirroring): “I see you are feeling upset about not seeing your friend today. It’s hard when we have to change our plans”
Parent (no mirroring): “Don’t be sad—we’ll reschedule soon”
Child: Mad about having to end screen time to do chores.
Parent (effective mirroring): “I get it that you’re not wanting to stop what you’re enjoying to do your chores.”
Parent (no mirroring): “Stop complaining and go do your chores”
One way to build mirroring skills is to practice with yourself. Think about what you would want someone to say to you when you’re upset and how good it feels to be understood.
Mirroring back your child’s feelings, no matter the circumstances, is a great way to improve the relationship with your children, increasing the likelihood that they will ultimately create a healthy sense of self based on connection, confidence and an inherent feeling of self-worth.