Mirroring Emotions with Children
The interchange of emotional expression – at all stages and ages – has the power to help create connection and belonging, and this, in turn, cultivates self-esteem and determination. When we help children identify and express feelings, it leads to better school outcomes, healthier relationships, and a positive sense of self.
By navigating with empathy to the center of a child’s world, parents and caregivers can help to nurture their child’s expression of feelings and emotion, developing key ingredients for positive attitudes and behaviors later in life.
One of the ways that you can help build your child’s emotional development is through the process of mirroring. With this skill, you are helping your child feel heard. Mirroring promotes a feeling of being understood, creates a language for emotions, helps to promote self-worth and a feeling of intrinsic value.
Here are three key steps in the mirroring process:
1. Relate to Cues – Sometimes emotions can be hard to identify. Tune into your child’s feelings by looking at their body language, listening to what they’re saying, and observing their behavior:
“You have been really quiet since we got home from school; your face is all red and you’re looking down at the ground and you’re stomping your feet hard on the ground when you walk.”
2. Match & Reflect – Focus on your child’s feelings. Use your child’s words, tone, and facial expressions to repeat back what you are hearing your child say. Try to be as detailed and specific as possible in describing and empathizing with your child. If they are not yet able to say what the emotion is, suggesting what they might be feeling can help.
“So, it was a really hard day at school because it felt like no one wanted to play tag on the playground with you during recess. Did you feel lonely and sad on the playground?”
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, but demonstrating that all feelings are acceptable. This is not a teaching moment for your child (that can happen later); this is about your child feeling heard.
3. Validate Feelings – Validate your child’s felt emotions without trying to “fix” their feelings. Remember to focus on feelings instead of behaviors/actions.
“I understand. You think that is not fair. It’s okay to feel disappointed.”
Over time, the range of emotions you notice and mirror will help your child to use language to express their feelings rather than behaviors and actions. This practice of mirroring helps children to know their feelings matter and encourages reflection, empathy, and self-acceptance. Your gut instinct may be to “fix” the unpleasant feeling, but with your empathy and presence, you are instilling internal resilience and tolerance for more difficult emotions.